The Brothers Grimm
February 23, 2006
Starring: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Lena Headey, Jonathan Pryce, Peter Stormare, Monica Bellucci, Mackenzie Crook, Barbora Lukesová, Anna Rust, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Richard Ridings,
The past few years have been tough for Terry Gilliam. Amidst several false starts, including, most famously, the aborted attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (as documented in Lost in La Mancha), the veteran filmmaker was desperate to make a movie and took a director-for-hire gig with Miramax (akin, in some circles, to making a pact with the Devil). During the course of making The Brothers Grimm (2005), Gilliam clashed with studio honcho Harvey Weinstein over several issues: the director’s regular cinematographer was fired by the studio and during the editing process an incensed Gilliam, tired of it all, left the production and went off to make another movie (Tideland). After some time had passed and the dust settled, he returned and was allowed to supervise his cut of the movie which was released in theatres and now on DVD.
After seven years since his last movie, Gilliam fans were just happy to see another movie by the director. The Brothers Grimm is a return to the grungy, medieval worlds depicted in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Jaberwocky (1977). Jacob (Ledger) and Wilhelm (Damon) Grimm are two con men of the supernatural, traveling from village to village fleecing the superstitious townfolk out of their money. The local authorities catch Jake and Will after they pull off their latest scheme and force them to check out the mysterious disappearances of ten little girls from the village of Marbaden. They are forced to enter the forest and search for the missing children and in doing so face real supernatural entities instead of the fabricated ones that they are used to.
As always, Gilliam’s film is rich in detail and atmosphere. For example, Little Red Riding Hood’s journey through the dangerous forest is shot in warm, amber tones with darkness lurking behind every tree. Soon, Gretel (of Hansel and Gretel fame) runs afoul of the same enchanted forest. The film contains Gilliam’s usual elaborate set design, deep focus photography, use of wide angle close-ups and skewed camera angles to depict a fantastical world turned upside down.
Jake and Will adhere to a familiar Gilliam staple, the dual protagonists: one is the sensible realist and the other an eccentric dreamer. In The Fisher King (1991) it was Jack and Parry, Cole and Jeffrey in Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Like these other duos, Jake and Will are liars and tellers of tall tales escaping from reality. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger fit seamlessly into Gilliam’s absurd, dark, sometimes silly universe – especially Ledger who deliberately messes with his good looks with a scraggily beard and twitchy demeanour clearly in the tradition of Gilliam’s holy fools like Parry and Jeffrey. Both actors also aren’t afraid to look silly or unglamourous, another hallmark of the director’s movies.
The Brothers Grimm also continues Gilliam’s fascination with protagonists who are fantasts who make things up in order to escape from reality or, in the case of Jake and Will, responsibility. Those familiar with Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) will notice the similarities in plot: a village is terrorized by supernatural evil and it is up to a foppish protagonist to succeed where others have failed and prove themselves. The Brothers Grimm certainly is not a bad film, just not one of Gilliam’s best, but it is still nice to see him in action. After all, Gilliam at half-strength is better than no Gilliam at all.
There is an audio commentary by Terry Gilliam who is his customarily candid self in this uncharacteristically muted track from the usually animated filmmaker. He admits that when initially given Ehren Kruger’s script he didn’t like it but needed work and decided to do it anyway. Gilliam used practical locations and built sets whenever possible for texture and realness. He goes on to praise his cast, in particular Peter Stormare who adlibbed most of his lines. The director does touch upon his battles with the studio, like how they wanted facial hair on the actors removed in order to show off their attractive, youthful faces. Even though Gilliam doesn’t name names, he points out what parts or the film he met with resistance from the studio.
There are 12 deleted scenes with optional commentary from Gilliam. It is footage that he admires but that made the movie too long. He admits that the one compromise he made was keeping the main actors’ teeth clean when they should have been dirty. Surprisingly, the most expensive scene in the movie, involving a giant tree attacking our heroes, was cut because they felt it was too spectacular and made everything that came afterward anti-climatic.
“Bringing the Fairy Tale to Life” is a standard making of featurette with a much more upbeat Gilliam than the one on the commentary track. Damon and Ledger hung out together and prepped for their roles for two months before shooting in order to bond. Of course, none of the conflicts with the studio are discussed.
Finally, “The Visual Magic of The Brothers Grimm” takes a look at the CGI effects used to enhance the movie. Gilliam wanted to use models but some of things, like animated trees had to be rendered digitally.