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Oeuvre: Gilliam: The Brothers Grimm

Oeuvre: Gilliam: The Brothers Grimm

For a compromised vision that is neither the film that Gilliam nor his executive producers wanted to make, The Brothers Grimm is a worthy addition to his oeuvre.

For Terry Gilliam, a director famed for his “Trilogy of Imagination,” classic fairy tales were always an inevitable subject. In the hands of the creator of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, about the very nature of storytelling, a fantastical take on the Brothers Grimm translates into a film that revels in Gilliam’s penchant for childhood wonder and dark comedy. While Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm meets expectations for depictions of the dangers that lie in wait in the French forest and the banter between adventurous storytelling brothers, production woes, as usual, plagued Gilliam and resulted in a compromised vision of the grandfathers of slightly morbid fairy tales.

In perfect Gilliam fashion, brothers Will (Matt Damon) and Jake (Heath Ledger) aren’t portrayed as stoic, legendary compilers of great tales but as hacks, literal con artists exorcising fake phantasmagorias. They still love the folk tales they collect but peddle remedies for supernatural ills that are actually elaborate ruses (Mackenzie Crook at one point dons a witch’s costume). Not only do they love these tales, but Jake wants to believe them. Gilliam opens his film with a glimpse into the brothers’ traumatic childhoods and the beginnings of their obsession. Having been sent to sell the family cow in order to pay for his sick sister’s treatment, the gullible Jake returns, beaming, with useless magic beans.

Gilliam constructs tension between the brothers around their approach to magic. Will is a skeptic who wants to prey on the gullible; Jake is a romantic who dreams of walking into a real fairy tale. Skewing our perception of the characters are their portrayals. Ledger emphasizes physical humor in the role of the bumbling, dorky brother. Damon, in the other hand, is the charismatic half of the duo, the straight man convincing townspeople of his smokescreen fantasies. While these differences are perhaps emphasized more than necessary, the sadistic French General Vavarin Delatombe (Brazil’s Jonathan Pryce) forgoes burning down the forest along with the deceitful brothers in order to send them to Marbaden to investigate the disappearance of several girls and a devilish plot hatched by the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci)—or, more than likely, the work of con-men like them.

The plot is a struggle to follow, more complex than a straightforward homage blending classic fairy tales. Gilliam’s fantastical style is unleashed on these proceedings, but The Brothers Grimm lacks a tight story to warrant the excess of effects. Most importantly, the brothers themselves collected stories of stringent morals; here, Gilliam wavers between charlatans and heroes. The karma of their tales is by no means incorporated into this depiction. Thankfully, Gilliam’s humor helps to make up for the script’s shortcomings. Take for instance the Python-worthy joke early in the film when Will refers to a child as the villager’s son. He is immediately corrected, “He is my daughter!” and Will awkwardly assures him, “And a fine wife he’ll make some lucky man!”

Gilliam has been no stranger to production disputes in his long career. Too often, the director, who detests creative compromises and stipulations, has found himself battling studios and producers with their own visions of what his films should look like. The making of The Brothers Grimm featured fewer budgetary woes but more creative disagreements. Produced under Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s Dimension films, the Weinsteins raised questions about everything from Matt Damon wearing a prosthetic nose to Gilliam’s final cut. During production, they fired cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, and, combined with problems surrounding effects, principal photography and ultimately the theatrical release were delayed almost a full year. The entire fallout with the Weinsteins made Gilliam mourn, “They took the joy out of filmmaking.”

Yet for a compromised vision that is neither the film that Gilliam nor his executive producers wanted to make, The Brothers Grimm is a worthy addition to his oeuvre. A whimsical tale about two of the most famous storytellers, it’s as wily and convoluted as any Gilliam film and ends by reinforcing the existence of real magic, despite the portrayal of the brothers Grimm as liars and frauds. Whether the storytellers are exactly who we believe them to be, Gilliam would have us still believe the fantasies we’ve all come to love.

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