Michael Wood reviews The Brothers Grimm
Terry Gilliam’s latest fantastical extravaganza has all the usual exemplary production values and quirky characters. But is there anything more to it?
The short answer is no. It all looks incredibly impressive and ridiculous in equal measures, but it doesn’t offer the bite we’ve come to expect from Gilliam. The story is rather half-hearted, and the film attempts to make up for this by giving the execution 110% in frenetic energy. Ultimately, this just leaves it feeling insubstantial, and more than a little confusing.
In early 19th century French-occupied Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm move from town to town, using Jacob’s knowledge of old tales to find gullible villagers who can be persuaded that they’re being haunted. They then pretend to dispatch the ghosts and charge a lucrative sum.
This works fine until the French occupiers force them to go to the town of Marbaden, to investigate the disappearance of local girls. It becomes quickly clear that all the tales they’ve heard of are actually coming true there. The moral of the story, in so far as it can be said to have one, seems to be that our arrogant belief that rationality and science can explain everything will eventually be our downfall.
Of course, the film is so shallow it’s hard to even substantiate this basic interpretation of it, and it only seems apparent when compared with other Gilliam films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or Time Bandits. Certainly, the sophisticated French rationalist General is an almost caricature villain, in the line of the Mayor from Munchausen (and both are in fact played by Jonathon Pryce, with little to differentiate the characters except the accent).
Also, like Munchausen, there are some interesting commentaries made about stories and narrative.
The central characters are famed as collectors of tales so several times they remark that they are in a story, or that events are happening because the story dictates they must. If this is intended as a clever point about the nature of genre film making, I think it was made better elsewhere.
Maybe I’m being overly demanding. This is still good fun if you’re prepared to just watch it and not want some kind of message. It’s funny, and is clearly extremely well-made, but it also feels like occasionally Gilliam is trying to say something; I just can’t work out what or how.
The ending of the film is so thoroughly confused that I couldn’t help feeling it was deliberately so, but I think that I’m just simply being too generous in trying to find a meaning to it.
There are plot holes and continuity errors throughout; the ending simply has a few more of them to offer. Maybe the confusion is a deliberate commentary on our expectations of a certain rationality even in our escapist movies, but I really doubt it.
I don’t know quite why this doesn’t seem to have worked, as the prospect of Gilliam taking on fairytales is certainly quite an appealing one. This just seems to me like a wasted opportunity.