Like the child of a bad marriage, The Brothers Grimm seems doomed to live unhappily ever after. The Weinstein brothers dumped Gilliam’s movie in with a bunch of remaindered titles during their decamp from Disney-owned Miramax (only the Oscar-worthy likes of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Proof and Johnny Depp’s The Libertine escaped the cull). US reviews have been similarly harsh, making great use of the siblings’ surname to headline their gleefully misanthropic findings. Well, p’shaw, The Brothers Grimm is nowhere near Gilliam’s finest film, but, in spite of all the sabotage and ill-will, it is good fun and much more than the sum of its parts.
Some sections are downright beautiful – rickety tumbledown cottages, the impenetrable tower in the midst of the Marbaden forest, the interior of the young Grimms’ family home – and lit like Dutch masterworks, yet others (largely on-location interiors) are flat and bland (Gilliam’s preferred DoP, Nicola Pecorini, was an early victim of the Weinstein purge). As a whole, it simply doesn’t look ‘Gilliam-esque’. Nothing has the jaw-dropping visual audacity of, say, The Crimson Permanent Assurance offices blossoming into a galleon at the beginning of The Meaning Of Life or The Fisher King’s commuter waltz in Grand Central station.
As the Grimms, both Matt Damon (as sceptical Will) and Heath Ledger (whose Jake wants to believe) seem miscast, if affable. Again, not original first choices – Johnny Depp had been attached to the project (as had Nicole Kidman) – they struggle with the Herculean task of making the clashing aspects of the story work, juggling comic interludes and drama with bluescreen fight scenes.
The reworked script reads like a buddy movie with cut-and-paste witticisms. Following a row with Lena Headey’s feisty villager Angelika, Will quips, “I think that went quite well.” Confusingly, all the Germans speak in different regional English accents. Headey clanks out the blunt Huddersfield vowels, Damon flirts with a passable Cockney and Ledger delivers something vaguely northern. Most jarringly, Jonathan Pryce, as the Napoleonic general Delatombe, and his Italian sidekick Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) plump for ’Allo ’Allo!-style comedy accents.
And yet, like the embryonic stories referenced, something magical happens during the course of the film. It doesn’t matter that the imagery is derivative of everything from Ghostbusters to The Evil Dead via Millais’ iconic Ophelia painting, or that the splicing of fairytales has now become the unassailable territory of Shrek. The cumbersome first 90 minutes somehow birth a final half-hour that’s genuinely gripping, especially thanks to Monica Bellucci’s fantastical radiance.
Ultimately, like all the most enduring classical tales, The Brothers Grimm is a (small) triumph over adversity.
Although miscast and meddled-with, Gilliam's beleaguered direction guides a troubled project to a pleasing, even feelgood resolution.