A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE BROTHERS GRIMM
2005, PG-13, 118 mins.
Wilhelm Grimm: Matt Damon / Jacob Grimm:
Heath Ledger / Delatombe:
Jonathan Pryce / Angelika:
Lena Headey / Cavaldi:
Peter Stormare / Mirror Queen:
Monica Bellucci / Mother Grimm: Barbara Lukesova / Sister Grimm: Anna Rust
There is no denying the fact that director Terry Gilliam is one who’s own signature can always be felt on screen, even if the film is a lackluster affair. His films are never dull to look at and he has always had a unique and daring ability to throw up endless amounts of inventive visuals to give his films flavour, depth, and distinctiveness. Looking back and reflecting on his body of work I am reminded of his strong and authoritative power at making his films lush and almost hallucinogenic in terms of their visual opulence. They have that sort of transcending and hidden out of body allure that other escapist odysseys only wish to attain.
Gilliam is an auteur that has always rubbed me with decidedly mixed results. People tend to forget that, a long time ago, he was one of the original members of Monty Python and even helped quarterback some of their most memorable and cherished films, such as the universally revered MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. However, Gilliam’s films have also revealed quirky offbeat sensibilities, such as in his 1981 film TIME BANDITS and the underrated THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHUASEN. He hit critical mass in 1985 with BRAZIL, I film that I loved in terms of its art direction and spectacle, but nevertheless found impenetrable in terms of its story, meaning, and characters. He also went on to make FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and THE FISHER KING, two other odd and perplexing films that I both appreciated and loathed. His finest film still remains 12 MONKEYS, where he dabbled into a sort of haunting and darkly poetic story about time travel that involves a man witnessing his own death.
Now comes THE BROTHERS GRIMM, yet another work by Gilliam that is all sights and sounds without a story that allows our interest to truly sink in. Yes, the film is magical in the sense that it displays an impressive conglomeration of stunning art direction, costume design, and some enterprising and ingenious cinematography and camera work. Again, much like I stated previously, THE BROTHERS GRIMM is never tedious to look at, but its main failing is that its artifice has overcome its narrative and characters. I remember many of the strange and peculiar sights from the film, but I just don’t seem to honestly remember much of the film's plot itself. THE BROTHERS GRIMM is fiercely ambitious in design and construction, but completely negligible in terms of implementation.
The film itself focuses squarely on the two brothers, whose fairy tales have transfixed many a reader, young and old. The German brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm spent years collecting and researching folk tales early in the 19th century. In 1812 they published Children's and Household Tales, a collection that became known as "Grimm's Fairy Tales." The collection included what are now some of the world's most famous stories, including Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin. Obviously, their stories bare little more elaboration by me, other than to say that this film is a very loose tale of these real men.
Some of the tales that the Grimms spun are here in the film, but they appear more like minor cameos than big reveals. The main mission of this film version is not to be an episodic look at their famous works – they appear in subtle ways to help punctuate the story Gilliam attempts to tell. In THE BROTHERS GRIMM he takes the men and makes them into 18TH Century traveling con artists. Set in 1796, the brothers Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath ledger) travel and visit various villages in Germany. What do they do? They essentially stage counterfeit magic shows that involve corpses, witches, and all forms of the wicked and other-worldly, and considering the time during which they presented their cheap charlatan tricks, its no wonder how they were easy to dupe people.
The two brothers are carved out as foils to one another. Will is sort of the cynical nihilist of the two, who seems to take great pleasure in being a hustler and stealing money from the poor. Contrastingly, Jacob sort of is a bit more innocent and naïve. He kind of believes in the magic that they go out of their way to stage. How much does Jacob believe in magic? Well, in an opening flashback to when the two brothers were children, Jacob is shown selling the family’s cow for some magic beans, much to the chagrin of Will. Obviously, this terrible childhood incident has done little to sway Jacob into becoming a supernatural atheist.
The opening moments show the two successfully vanquishing a witch and then enjoying the spoils of a job…or hoax…well done. Well, success turns for the worse when the two are discovered for the purveyors of parlor tricks that they are. It seems that Napoleon’s main man in Germany – Delatombe (played by Jonathon Price, who also headlined BRAZIL) has discovered the brothers’ secrets. He could just easily punish and kill the two without a thought in the world, but he does not. Instead, he sends them to the village of Marbaden, where it appears several of its children have gone missing without a trace. To make matters worse, the forests that outline the village are haunted – maybe by “those we dare not speak of.” In order to ensure that the Grimms give the village a good show, Delatombe dispatches his very, very odd torturer – Cavaldi (played in a wickedly droll and farcical performance by Peter Stormare)- to watch over things.
Well, when the entourage manages to make it to Marbadem, the Grimms soon realize that – dang it – the forest is actually haunted. A local woman, and a miraculously resourceful one at that, named Angelika (Lena Headey) is keenly aware of the truth behind the forest, but the boys don’t really believe her at the beginning, maybe because both are smitten with her. Well, through a series of events, the Grimms soon realize that they are no longer the creators of the mayhem that they had concocted in the past and now must battle the real thing.
Now, if the forest being haunted was not enough, the Grimms also have to contest with a 500 year old Queen, played by Monica Bellucci, who despite being that old, still has a rather impressive amount of cleavage. Well, it seems that this Queen has cast some sort of spell over the forest, I guess, and not only that, but she is also a tempting seductress who can kill with a kiss. Obviously, there is no surprise to see that the Grimms will eventually battle it out with her and the evil that lurks in the forest to rescue the village and all live “happily ever after.”
THE BROTHERS GRIMM is one of those most unfortunate films in the sense that it’s a good looking one with high class production design, but with a convoluted and disinteresting story that is more dull than enthralling. The film, in itself, is rather densely packed in terms of its story, but maybe that’s the chief problem. The film is jammed with so much vision and imaginative ideas, but it has no real clue on how to deliver. The film is sort of transfixed by its own visual flourishes so much that it seems to have forgotten to focus more on telling a streamlined, coherent, and involving story. A lot happens in THE BROTHERS GRIMM, but you sure have to work mental overtime to make sense of certain things and piece everything together to make sense of the work as a whole. All in all, I did not feel that I should have had to put in this much work for an escapist fantasy. Sure, the film looks sensational and some individual moments are inspired and oddball in their charm, but if you really don’t care about the proceedings, then the battle is lost, I’m afraid.
Another problem with the film is its misplaced tone. I am not sure what THE BROTHERS GRIMM was trying to instill in its audience – was it trying to be a fantastical farce, a tongue-in-cheek horror film, an escapist fantasy, a slapstick circus of the absurd…or all of the above? There is an aimlessness to the entire enterprise and by the time the film ends you are left wondering if it could have benefited from being more of an all-out comedy or a straight fantasy film. I think that there have been good films that have successfully bridged the gulf between scares and laughs (look at GHOSTBUSTERS, for example), but THE BROTHERS GRIMM is a dizzying mess of ideas and contrivances. There is a solid, coherent, and engaging film here with substance and style that is buried far too deep under its flamboyant excesses.
Some of the individual performers are fine. I like Jonathon Price's turn here, and he shows how good of an actor he is by being able to play soft and innocent people in one film and then later dialing up the antagonism for a role like his in GRIMM. I laughed many times at Peter Storemare, who provides many moments of inspired lunacy and over-the-top eccentricities. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, ironically, are the two performers in the film that I think really don’t have a clear understanding of how to ground their characters in any meaningful way. They play the parts so broadly that they seem clueless as to whom they are trying to encapsulate. There are times in the film where they are hopeless and arrogant buffoons and other times when they are courageous heroes. There are times where they are uncaring magicians who care little for the poor they pray upon and other moments where they have huge changes of heart and become truthful and honorable men. Their individual performances themselves rage from being overtly agitated and demented to earnest and calm. Damon and Ledger's work here, much like the film’s story, is all over the map.
Terry Gilliam is a true film artist. He has the skills to fill the screen with such astounding detail and ingenuity that effortlessly inspires a lot of our childlike imagination and awe. He has also proven that he can tell adult stories that effectively combine elements of black comedy, adventure, romance, fantasy and horror as he did so well in 12 MONKEYS. Yet, THE BROTHERS GRIMM is a work that struggles to be something grand and entertaining and instead becomes a film of frustrating banality. The film’s uncomfortable and schizophrenic marriage of horror and humor will leave many viewers puzzled and it tries to tell a wild and outlandishly realized story that never really carries itself to successful fruition. The film is all Terry Gilliam through and through and has elements of his absurdist tendencies that have made him famous, but the film just implodes under his inability to channel a compelling plot to match the equally gripping sights. THE BROTHERS GRIMM chiefly demonstrates that all the cinematic magic available is not enough to carry a film that lacks inner substance.