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Brothers Grimm, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 26 August 2005
‘The Brothers Grimm” has been on the verge of release for at least a year; now that the Brothers Weinstein are leaving/have left Miramax, a lot of films that had been shelved are seeing the light of day at last. And few of them are much good. Unfortunately, “The Brothers Grimm” follows this pattern.

It’s an ambitious, handsome movie with lots of great bits scattered here and there. It was directed by Terry Gilliam, and interesting for that reason alone. But it’s not his best work; it feels compromised and occasionally choppy with several sequences all too obviously simply lopped out of the movie. But the biggest weaknesses are mixed moods and unreconciled ideas; it’s unclear just why the movie was even made.

The core idea was probably what got the project greenlighted. It’s a fairy tale about Jakob and Wlhelm Grimm, the 19th century German collectors of folk tales that had been passed along orally one generation to the next. Their collections include many of the world’s most beloved and familiar fairy tales which have been the bases for countless movies, including the big Cinerama production, “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” (no connection to this movie other than the presence of the brothers).

After a quick opening establishing Jakob as the True Believer and Wilhelm as the Skeptic, we meet them years later in a Germany under the sway of Napoleon. Although we occasionally see Jakob (Heath Ledger) hastily scribbling notes in a scrapbook, these Brothers Grimm are not collectors of fairy tales. They’re ghostbusters. They travel from town to town, earning money by driving away witches and the like. There’s a mildly scary encounter with a screaming, flying witch in a barn—and afterward, we learn that the brothers are charlatans. With the aid of some helpers (never clearly identified), they fake the hauntings and the cures. Jakob is still serious and withdrawn; Wilhelm (Matt Damon) is exuberant and pleasure-loving.

We then see a little girl in a red hood being attacked by something unseen in a photogenic and very set-like forest. We see a lot of that forest, entirely too much, in fact. She’s the latest victim of a series of abductions of little girls in the area; a little girl called Gretel is snatched away while her brother Hans is inattentive.
The Brothers Grimm are taken captive by the French governor of the district, Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce); he’s seen through their scheme. Without any real interest in solving the mystery of the missing girls, but instead just wanting to quell the complaints, he sends the Brothers Grimm, accompanied by thick-headed (and –tongued) soldier Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) to at least seem to try and end the abductions.

No sooner have the Grimms arrived in the depressing little town than they have to make contact with local trapper Angelika (Lena Headey), who wants nothing to do with them, even though two of her sisters were among those kidnapped. But join them she does. Eventually, the story involves strange bugs (never explained), crows, a tower, a werewolf, a horse that swallows a little girl, walking Evil Dead-ish trees, and an evil queen with long hair.

The script is credited to Ehren Kruger, about whom I complained recently (he wrote “The Skeleton Key”), although the shooting script was written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. They coyly take the on-screen credit of “Dress Pattern Makers.” Gilliam has said that Kruger’s script was primarily horror; if so, it wasn’t changed enough. There’s still quite a bit of horror, not enough to make this a horror movie—but enough that it’s not clearly anything else, either.

Gilliam adds unusual ideas. The mention of Angelika evidently requires that everyone spit noisily on the ground, and as the Grimms approach her dwelling, there’s a loud, off-screen chorus of spitting. The Grimms’ assistants are tortured by being hoisted by their ankles, their heads in glass boxes full of snails. Someone exclaims, “Merde! I mean scheiss.” Wilhelm excitedly tells Jakob to “trust the toad!” There’s a long sequence with a gloppy creature made of mud that leaps out of a well, staggers around the village, then turns into a gingerbread man—or at least that’s what he calls himself—and tries to run away. I couldn’t figure out why the scene exists.

Gilliam employs lots of visual tricks and ideas, some of which are impressive, many of which are merely puzzling. There are several very high-angle shots, including one looking down at the high tower. The effects are often excellent, especially at the climax involving a shattered mirror, but other times are unconvincing. No one has yet created a really convincing CGI werewolf transformation.

The film is extremely busy with something going on all the time—and yet occasionally it simply lurches forward; after the first meeting with Angelika, the Brothers are suddenly leading a fully-mounted expedition into the sinister forest. Later, when Jakob falls from the tower, he’s wrapped in what looks like a long marabou boa. We never know what it is, but for a while the story seemed headed in a Rapunzel direction, but never quite reached the point of long hair used as a climbing rope. Maybe this long hairy white thing was left over from that. Jakob walks round the tower’s top, counting crypts—but we don’t see the crypts until some time later. There are squillions of little bugs here and there in the forest, but what they’re intended to do, or represent, is never explained.

At times, the movie reaches too far for effect. When Pryce is torturing his victims, a little white kitten falls into a torture device and is instantly reduced to kitten puree that spatters on Pryce. He tastes it. This brief foray into gross-out humor is unwelcome and not funny—and the only such example in the movie. There are some scenes, such as the final fate of the Grimms’ helpers, that aren’t even supposed to be funny—but then why are they here? At one point, someone reveals that much is dependent on “the power of the Theringian Queen.” Huh? Again, no explanation at all—but the characters on screen react as if this is big important news.

The film isn’t exactly a comedy, but just as with the horror side of it, it’s not exactly NOT a comedy, either. Everything seems arbitrary and unfocused. If you’re going to feature the Brothers Grimm in your story, you really should make their fairy tales part of the plot instead of just window dressing. Tiny fragments of some of their tales appear, but they’re of no more consequence to the story that the trees in the forest—the ones that don’t walk, that is. The plot should have depended on what the Brothers have learned from their travels; we should have seen reasons why these charlatans became the respected tale-collectors of real life.

The movie’s design is almost overwhelming; the city and village scenes are strikingly composed and rendered, but the forest is pretty much the same thing any way the camera points. The whole film has been given a coppery hue that’s soon wearisome; there are few bright colors to be found anywhere. It’s the grimmest-looking fairy tale in years. Newton Thomas Sigel was the cinematographer, and Guy Hendrix Dyas the production designer. One of the best aspects of the movie is the exciting, imaginative score by Dario Marianelli.

Matt Damon and Heath Ledger were given very limited character traits which never really vary. Wilhelm becomes a bit more of a believer, and from sort of falling for Angelika, Jakob becomes a tad more worldly. But their characters are sketchy at best. Lena Headey is more interesting as the melancholy but tough forester Angelika, but Peter Stormare overplays the comedy aspects of his role. Jonathan Pryce is sly, witty and cruel, which makes him more interesting than the other actors.

Terry Gilliam has tried to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear he evidently was handed; unfortunately, instead he’s made a scramble—half silk, half sow, not altogether anything at all. If you’re interested in his career, you owe to yourself to see the movie; others are cautioned. It looks good but it never comes together satisfactorily.

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