A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 477 – The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm – June 20th, 2011

We saw this movie in the theater, you know. It’s a Gilliam film and it has Heath Ledger and Matt Damon and Jonathan Pryce! It’s a twisting and retelling of classic fairytales! How could we resist, right? Because those all sound like the makings of a fun movie. I certainly enjoy new takes on old fairytales and the cast has quite a few names we enjoy. So off to the theater we went. And rarely have I left a theater feeling as let down as I did then. It’s immensely frustrating and at the time I couldn’t even really articulate why. And given that at the time I wasn’t taking any classes in film analysis and I wasn’t working on a project like this, I didn’t bother trying. Tonight it seems I will have to.

Really though, it’s difficult to put my finger on it. There’s just something so off about this movie. It’s not the premise, which I enjoy. According to this movie’s version of the world, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm weren’t just traveling around researching folktales. They were a couple of con men using local legends to scare villagers into paying them to get rid of ghosts, monsters and witches, all of which were fabricated by the Grimms and their assistants. And along the way Jacob gathered a wealth of information and stories until they happened upon a story that wasn’t just a story but was real. That’s a great idea! I would be totally on board with that!

The trouble is that in order to force Jacob and Wilhelm into actually investigating a real supernatural disturbance, the movie gives them a real life antagonist. Two antagonists, actually. There’s the French General, Delatombe (played by Jonathan Pryce) and his associate, an Italian assassin named Cavaldi. They capture the brothers, sentence them to death for fraud, then offer them a deal if they will investigate a series of missing children and prove there is no supernatural cause for their disappearances. So off Jacob and Wilhelm go and of course there is a supernatural cause for the children’s disappearances and they have to use what they’ve learned of folklore to save the day. The thing is, here, that the movie divides its antagonism between the supernatural and the mundane. They go up against the evil queen in the tower in the enchanted forest while pursued by Cavaldi and his men. They attempt to rescue the missing children while Delatombe is interested in ordering them tortured. It’s so split and scattered and I would far rather have had the real world stuff be the impetus without getting in the way later on. They’ve got enough to deal with when it comes to the queen in the tower – or they should.

Which brings me to my next issue. The queen in the tower is a fantastic melding of elements we’re all familiar with. She’s in love with her own image, stating that she is the fairest of them all. She wants eternal youth. But she’s also isolated high in a tower and has grown the most luxuriously long hair. I very much like Monica Belluci’s performance here (much as I like almost all the performances, actually) but she’s just not given enough to work with. This should be the story of how Jacob and Wilhelm discovered that the fiction they’d spent years researching was truth after all, but the queen just isn’t given enough time or space to be the true villain of the movie and that forces the supernatural element of the plot into a secondary position. But it’s such a fundamental part of the whole movie that it doesn’t fit comfortably into a secondary position. So the supernatural and mundane aspects just spend most of their time not meshing at all. They’re pieces from two very different puzzles and all the pounding in the world won’t make them fit together.

To be honest, I would have preferred if the whole movie had been the supernatural stuff. Lose the French military and torture chamber and Italian assassins and all that nonsense and just railroad Wilhelm and Jacob into the situation with the villagers themselves! There’s even a strong willed and highly-skeptical-of-them woman in place to give them a reason to stick around (of course they both fall for her) or, alternatively, to keep them from leaving since her sisters were the first children to disappear. And she’s a trapper and knows how to use lots of sharp instruments. If the whole movie had stayed in the realm of fantasy then maybe it would have worked.

Because, you see, I like the whole rivalry between the brothers, with Jacob being the scholar who’s truly fascinated by these stories and Wilhelm being the practical one who’s using them to make a living (a dishonest living but a living nonetheless). There’s plenty of material for them to butt heads over here and Heath Ledger did a wonderful job as the bookish and somewhat timid Jacob while Matt Damon was a lot of fun as the forceful and outspoken Wilhelm. They play off each other nicely and I enjoy watching their scenes together. I’m even willing to allow for Angelika as a point of rivalry between them because she is otherwise an extremely strong character who could kick both their asses without breaking a sweat and saves said asses at least once, so she’s more than just a damsel and she’s played very nicely by Lena Headey. Yes, some of the fairytale references are somewhat forced, like the Gingerbread Man bit, which just seems goofy. It’s not like the original Grimms stories aren’t full of disturbing ways in which children can disappear. And I’m sure Gilliam knows many of them, if not all. But I can let that pass. What I can’t let pass is Cavaldi.

Now, I will not blame Peter Stormare for this entirely. Yes, it’s his performance, but well, the character was written to be a mix of villain and comic relief. And I just can’t quite see the combination of torturer and assassin with bumbling buffoon. It makes both the buffoonery seem bizarrely sinister (and not in a fun way) and the torture seem more foolish than it should be given that it is truly threatening. Stormare didn’t write this part for himself. And when Cavaldi makes a rapid 180 mid-climax and switches sides, telling Delatombe that he wishes to resign? I’m just left baffled. He was given so little screen time with lines that made it possible to see such a switch as believable. Sure, Jonathan Pryce gets an odder character in the overly-accented Delatombe, who enjoys eating freshly ground kitten and cheerily burns forests to the ground. But Cavaldi gets more time. It’s just not the time he needs in order to be a good character.

I just wanted so much more from this movie than it gave me. I wanted Gilliam-esque fantasy with oddities and strangeness and his take on the fairytales we all know. And I love the mirror queen and how the huntsman fits in, and the wolf, and then there’s the horrific spiderweb horse and the crows. The fantasy elements work for me. I can even handle the minor comic relief of Mackenzie Crook and Richard Ridings (who has one of the most distinct voices I’ve ever heard) because I like both actors and because truly, they belong with the Grimms in the forest. But instead I got not enough of what I did want and a whole pile of what I didn’t want and it didn’t come together well enough. It didn’t really come together at all.

June 20, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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