The Brothers Grimm

 The world is indebted to Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm. Over many years, they collected more than two hundred stories that were part of the German oral tradition, publishing them as Grimm's Fairy Tales. In the early 19th century, they wanted to offer stories of the people and of the imagination as a counter to the dominance of the 18th century's Age of Reason.

A cheerfully exuberant film was made in the early 1960s, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. With Terry Gilliam at the helm, the new film about the brothers is not quite so cheerful, although in its way it is certainly exuberant. Gilliam calls his film a fairy tale about the Grimms. It didn't happen? It could have happened!

Gilliam imagines the brothers as two con-men travelling their native Germany which is now occupied by French invading forces. It is 1796 and the Napoleonic wars are about to break in Europe. The French are snobbish (but with Allo, Allo accents). The Germans are more sensible although they are highly superstitious. The brothers have a reputation for ridding communities of witches and ghosts, quite a spectacular show but all of their own making. They get a shock when the French general (Jonathan Pryce, star of Gilliam's 1980s classic Brazil) arrests them but orders them to solve a mystery in a village where the children have been disappearing.

Thus begins a story where reality and fairy story mingle.

Matt Damon is the forceful and charming Wilhelm, master of the fraud. Heath Ledger is the mild-mannered and bespectacled Jacob who is forever writing down the folk stories he hears. With the help of a tough hunting guide, Angelika (Lena Headey), they enter the enchanted forest with its shifting trees, tentacle branches and continuing menace. In the forest is a Rapunzel-like tower where the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci) (of 'who is the fairest fame?) lies sleeping and haggard until she drinks the blood of twelve children at the moon's eclipse.

The brothers experience hazards in the forest and harassment from Cavaldi, the General's aide and creator of elaborate machines of torture. He is played by Peter Stormare in an even more over the top manic performance than his Satan in Constantine. If only Gilliam had reined him in more so that he would have been comic rather than demented! (There were delays in the production and interference from the Weinstein Brothers if they were to cut anything, trimming Stormare would have been more acceptable!)

What the screenplay does is weave small scenes from well-known fairy tales and allusions to others throughout the whole script: Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White and, at the end with the threatened Angelika, Sleeping Beauty.

For what audience has the film been made? It has a 12A classification which means that children under 12 need to see it with an adult. It does have some frightening scenes (with wolves, with some mock torture, with the Mirror Queen's transformation), but they are the kinds of scares we expect from fairy tales rather than the mechanised brutality of so many children's television programs. Adults? Most of the critics dismissed the film. Many seemed to be expecting a treatise on the imagination and made no allowances for its appeal of popular and folktale storytelling.

This means that its main appeal is to audiences, young and old, who don't like to put limits on their imaginations. There are so many possibilities in imagining 'what if?'. Gilliam (who has created such worlds before in Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil and The Fisher King) lets rip with the adventures here, not waiting for audiences to admire the scenery of the costumes. He loves the action and its meanings. Gilliam was also one of the Monty Pythons, co-directing The Holy Grail and directing Jabberwocky. He has never minded presenting the absurd side of storytelling. He offers a brew of the comic, the sinister, fantasy and a dash of realism.
LONDON - 28 November 2005 - 682 words

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