I feel a little absurd “defending” Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, simply because I don’t feel it should need defending. But apparently it does — from its flat-out detractors, yes, but just as much from Gilliamites who want to “blame” Ehren Kruger’s screenplay for the movie’s perceived faults (ignoring the fact that said screenplay was rewritten by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni, who are improbably credited as the film’s “dress pattern makers”).
All in all, I don’t think I’ve seen a movie so completely misunderstood and so thoroughly bashed for being what it set out to be since Ken Russell’s Lisztomania 30 years ago.
I’m not a major Gilliam apologist. Though I recognize him as a major film artist, I find his films themselves a mixed bag. I loathed Jabberwocky and found Time Bandits uneven. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was terrific to look at and had elements of breathtaking fantasy, but ultimately seemed a lot of energy expended to no real end. 12 Monkeys seems absurdly overrated, and The Fisher King a phony, treacly mess. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is just a plain mess.
Only with Brazil did I think Gilliam fully justified his immense reputation — but Brazil alone is such a startling achievement that it, combined with the single-mindedness of vision evidenced by all of Gilliam’s films, causes me to rank the director high among modern filmmakers.
And that brings us to The Brothers Grimm, which has been denounced by many of his adherents as Gilliam’s big sellout, while being equally attacked by his detractors for being too fanciful, too ragged, too over-the-top, too confused and too confusing. Frankly, I don’t think it’s any of these things. In the first place, if this is selling out, let’s have more of that and less “personal” filmmaking of the sort that has run riot this summer with cinematic exercises like Star Wars III and War of the Worlds.
But then, the whole idea of Brothers Grimm as selling out makes little sense. If Gilliam didn’t “sell out” with the much-more-viewer-friendly Fisher King, he certainly didn’t do so here. Then too, selling out in this sense is predicated on the idea that a cult filmmaker making a film that might, God forbid, be popular is a betrayal — something that says much about cult fans who resent the prospect of an intrusion by the public into what they consider to be their personal territory. (Selling out is also built on the screwy notion that anyone anywhere at any time ever sold a film project by promising the backers that very few people would pay to see the results.)
Moreover, Brothers Grimm fails miserably as a sellout work if it is also — as many have claimed — confused, confusing, etc. The truth is that it’s very much a Terry Gilliam picture, with all that implies.
Thematically, it’s of a piece with all of his work, since it focuses on the plight of a dreamer — in this case Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger) — who’s trying to survive in a hostile world that prides itself on being grounded in reality. The movie establishes this from the onset with young Jacob (newcomer Jeremy Robson) trading the family cow for “magic” beans rather than getting the money that would have paid for medical attention for his dying sister. There’s a brilliance to this set-up, too, since it lays out the tone for the entire movie.
In one economical scene, the characters of both Jacob and his realist brother, Will (newcomer Petr Ratimec), are sketched in, as is the fact that very real tragedy is going to be part and parcel of the world of the film. The scene also lays the groundwork for the brothers’ adult incarnation as con men who travel around Germany exorcising witches, ghosts, etc., that they themselves have created. It’s a vocation that owes far more to Will (Matt Damon) than Jacob, who spends most of his time recording in a book bits of folklore (and ultimately his own experiences), which he picks up along the way.
All of this should clue the viewer in that Gilliam’s film is not supposed to be an actual biopic on the Grimms, but an utterly fanciful imagining of what might have happened with them. The film’s a fairy tale about the origin of the Grimms’ fairy tales. What could possibly be more apt? The fairy tales — or rather references to them — are woven into the very fabric of Brothers Grimm. Some of them are overt (“Little Red Riding Hood”), others much more subtle (“The Princess and the Pea”). But interestingly, neither these, nor the fairy tale of the film itself, are sanitized and prettied up for modern viewers. Some of the images — a horse swallowing a child, a gingerbread man “stealing” the features of a child’s face — are nightmarishly disturbing, easily earning the film its PG-13 rating.
Much of what seems to be troubling the movie’s detractors is its refusal to settle into a single genre. Brothers Grimm is not specifically a horror film. It’s also not exactly a comedy. And it can’t — as noted — rightly be called a biopic. It is, however, a little bit of all these things, distilled into something of its own.
And it can be seen as more. I hardly think it’s just coincidental that the human villains are the leaders of an invading army (in this case, French) occupying a country they’ve overtaken (in this case, Germany). And while this facet of the story isn’t stressed, it’s certainly there. Similarly, the whole concept of these 19th-century con men being sent in to investigate a genuine case of possession carries a satirical whiff of current events. And though Gilliam isn’t generally considered a political filmmaker, I’d be hard-pressed to think the maker of Brazil was in any sense apolitical.
Still, in refusing easy categorization, the film at least flirts with greatness, and occasionally achieves it. In some ways, Brothers Grimm may be — despite complaints to the contrary — Gilliam’s most personal film in its attempts to justify the dreamer and his dreams, examining the reality and base truths at the core of those dreams.
Yet the film is no facile exercise in self-justification. It’s made abundantly clear that being the dreamer comes with a price, and one that is not always paid by the dreamer — witness the death of Jacob’s sister and the peril in which Jacob’s later pursuit of his dreams and fantasies places Will.
At the same time, Brothers Grimm is inarguably a slight departure for Gilliam, since it perhaps more resembles — in both tone and look — Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow than it does Gilliam’s other films. At least, it shares something of the Burton film’s roots in the world of the old Hammer horror pictures. Here, however, it’s also imbued with the look of the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters (John Everett Millais’ Ophelia is directly referenced).
The Gilliam film that Brothers Grimm is closest to is Munchausen, but the former has a bit more point. In the latter film Munchausen’s modus operandi is dismissed (by this film’s own villain, Jonathan Pryce, no less) with a curt, “He won’t get far on hot air and fantasy,” a bit of self-criticism that Gilliam has constantly tried to refute throughout his entire filmography. Here, the director has at least come close. And time may well prove that he’s done more than that with this rich, strange work.
Rated PG-13 for violence, frightening sequences and brief suggestive material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke