Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?
IF YOU’RE plagued by witches, curses or trolls, who ya gonna call? In The Brothers Grimm, you call Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. They play a pair of ghost busting charlatans, who roam the countryside preying on superstitious villagers. The characters of Will and Jake Grimm are a distant nod to the famous siblings whose riveting, often horrific fairy tales have made generations of children avoid gingerbread houses and trips through the woods to visit granny.
Once upon a production time, Will and Jake saved poor villages from frightful witches and troublemaking demons. The film chronicles a fictional time before the brothers became famous fairy tale writers, when they spun tales to fool superstitious villagers into hiring their services as medieval ghost busters. They are skilful in destroying witches and freeing villages because they have two assistants, one who works the illusions and the other who plays the aggrieved demon. Ding-dong, your witch is dead, they claim, and the grateful locals cough up bags of coins.
However, they meet their match in cold-hearted military official, General Delatombe (Pryce). The French catch the brothers and ‘convince’ them to go to the village of Marbaden, where the villagers are certain there is an enchanted forest swallowing up their children, because little girls have mysteriously started to go missing. Delatombe recruits Italian Cavaldi (Stormare) to accompany them.
The brothers are not prepared for what they uncover, a foe who uses genuine magic. The forest really is enchanted, contains an eerie tower where the Mirror Queen (Bellucci) lives, and there really is a curse as well as a creature-monster kidnapping little girls. Angelika (Headey), a self-sufficient hunter, reluctantly helps the brothers navigate through the forest, as she has lost two sisters to the sinister forest’s curse. The curse – a love enchantment, the girls – fed to the Mirror Queen to bring her back to life.
During the film, we see the pieces come to life that inspired them to create those classic fairy tales, the genesis of Jack and the Beanstalk’s magic seeds and the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The movie’s joke, more or less, is that these famed storytellers get caught in a myth all of their own.
It’s hard to believe that seven years have passed since former Monty Python animator-turned-feature director, Terry Gilliam, last made a movie. Unfortunately, he has returned with a grim and grimy tale, where you can’t help but feel there’s something missing. Humour, which it valiantly attempts on occasion yet invariably misses, and heart, elegance and magical enchantment are nowhere to be seen. The Brothers Grimm is a gloomy affair, an unfunny attempt to dramatise the lives of the great storytellers or, at least, stage the spooky circumstances that inspired them.
Headey emerges as the movie’s solid centre, all action and few words, Ledger and Damon play the Grimms with a period costumed uneasiness, Pryce is embarrassingly French and Belluci acts playfully disinterested. The only person who seems to be having any fun at all is Peter Stormare, relishing his role as Calvaldi. The tone is scattershot and its special effects are all over the place as well.
Given the film’s budget, some 80 million dollars, you would have expected more than what’s on display, but murky marks the spot – murky peasant villagers (ala Monty Python’s Holy Grail) and murkier dialogue. Like their stories, the film is weird and twisted, but the result is a bit of a mess, sometimes delightful, sometimes tedious but always creative.
You have to appreciate the efforts of Gilliam, solely for the lunacy of his vision. It creates a few memorable scenarios you’ll never see anywhere else (a child who is swallowed by a horse for example). However, there is not much else to the vision. There’s no insight into how the brothers’ fantasy creations filled the populace’s need for horror and myths and how those myths inherited the ability to resound throughout time. Instead, we’re given a glimpse of potential themes, Damon and Ledger display a push-and-pull dynamic of the bond of brotherly love, which seems like it’s just waiting to break through, but, played against the movie’s simple storyline, their personal conflict stands out as a bit too mechanical.
Gilliam’s strengths as a filmmaker – out of bounds visual imagination, tendency to spiral wildly off topic and fractious wit – are also his gravest liabilities. There comes the time when it feels as if you have entered one of those bewildering junk shops stuffed to the rafters with mildew and treasure. That moment stretches into a seeming eternity here, where overplotting, overacting and low-tech special effects overwhelm the good inventive stuff.
Kitted out in period garb and dubious British accents, the actors throw themselves into the flimsy script with energy, but are badly served by a director focused on flipping switches and twirling knobs. There are lavish sets, detailed costumes and a darkly ironic, if unsteady tone, accompanying the brothers being besieged by strange forces and creatures. Like Colin Farrell in Alexander, Damon is forced to struggle with a most disenchanting handicap, a wig that, in combination with his sideburns and frock coat, make him look ready for a Paul Revere and the Raiders tribute band, rather than slaying demons.
Gilliam never manages to stitch together the kidnapping subplot with his sight gags (a skinned rabbit, an errant hairpiece), cartoon performances and pop-psychological explanation for the brothers’ interest in the uses and abuses of enchantment, and it’s there that the film falls flat on its face.