For grown-ups who pretend they don’t believe the horrible stories they heard as children.
Wilhelm Grimm (Matt Damon) and his brother Jacob (Heath Ledger) are much in demand in early Nineteenth-century French occupied Germany. Knowledgeable in ancient legends and skilled in all manner of exorcisms, the Brothers Grimm rid small villages of evil witches and restless spirits… until a French general named Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) calls their bluff and threatens to expose them for the frauds they are. Delatombe is willing to wipe the slate clean, however, if the Grimms can expose another such charlatan occupying a village where several young girls have gone missing.
There probably should be a rating of ‘TG’ strictly for director Terry Gilliam. The reason is simple: nothing is taboo to Mr. Gilliam as he happily mixes children’s folklore and pleasant imagery with dismembered corpses and the worst of poor hygiene. The story is always served, however, no matter how bizarre and insane it may seem, and there seems to be no shortage of actors or actresses willing to put their careers in Terry’s skillful hands. From Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Time Bandits to Brazil, there’s no mistaking a Gilliam film.
However, with Gilliam often comes turmoil as the studios backing his projects often make demands for concessions the director isn’t willing to give. This sometimes results in projects being shelved for later completion (The Brothers Grimm being among them). Often such films are simply released as-is in the hopes of finding an audience and sometimes years later, but in this case the final cut appears to have been worth the wait. Gilliam was able to look at his film with fresh eyes half a year later and make the necessary adjustments to keep all involved happy.
The Grimm result is a story that happily hints at multiple fairie tales and legends (not unlike Broadway’s infamous “Into the Woods”), but there’s nothing musical or happy about the events taking place. In spite of the dark tone and dread which permeates the film, neither Gilliam nor screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring, The Skeleton Key) lets hope die, even when it seems impossibly out of reach. Walking trees that snatch victims out of the air, fallen towers that grow back, and the most disturbing reference ever to “The Gingerbread Man” all uniquely scream “Terry Gilliam.”
The real genius of the The Brothers Grimm are the brothers themselves. Instead of casting Heath Ledger as the opportunistic womanizer and Matt Damon as the hopeful believer, the roles are reversed to the best possbile effect. Ledger downplays Jacob’s obsession with folklore to the taunts of his brother, while Damon’s Wilhelm suitably takes charge over poor Jacob’s obsession until his rationalizations at last abandon him. If the brothers are the heart of the film, then Peter Stormare (as the torturer Cavaldi) must be its insanity (or Terry Gilliam’s), because he steals every scene he’s in both in character and sheer unpredictability, especially played off of Gilliam alumni Jonathan Pryce. Finally there is Monica Bellucci as the villain, because every good fairie tale needs a bad seed and it’s not hard to see why this evil queen can always find a willing minion or two.
If anything truly unseats the film, it’s that the end seems a bit drawn out. Once the mystery is solved and the solution is presented, everything’s finished except the credits, but The Brothers Grimm comes dangerously close to taking more bows than Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. Fortunately, the ride to get there is one of the most harrowing and entertaining since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and not even the macabre Johnny Depp (or Tim Burton, for that matter) could have made it any more so.
(a three and half skull recommendation out of four)
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