Up to his old tricks

Film - Gilliam's grotesque fairy tale lacks the sparkle of real magic, writes John Lyttle

The B

The Daily Mail is correct. Movies do corrupt. Monica Bellucci plays the prototype evil fairy-tale queen in Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, and the Italian supermodel is such a sensual vision of mature hauteur that it seems only right and proper that she should awake from a 500-year beauty sleep and start using the local peasant girls as an early form of hormone replacement therapy. Is it her fault that she makes Mona Lisa look like a hooker? And that even after five centuries no one has got round to inventing deep-penetrating liposome moisture micro-beads? Or, apparently, the rhetorical question. Why else would Bellucci be wasting everybody's time standing in front of her reflection redundantly chanting, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" If she turned up at my hovel I'd hand the kids over without a qualm, pausing only to ask what she uses to get that amazing shine on her hair. I'd probably even laugh when she answered, "Twins." As I found myself explaining to my god-daughter Sara, "Yes, those little girls are going to be drained of their youth, but at least it's in a good cause. That lady has a three-year contract to promote Dolce & Gabbana perfume and has to be camera-ready 24/7. Wait until you hit 40 - then you'll understand."

I'm in danger, however, of making The Brothers Grimm sound fun. I've been an admirer of Gilliam's since the anarchic animations of the Monty Python era, but has anyone genuinely enjoyed one of his films since he became the special needs director of modern cinema? These days Gilliam's a combination of class genius and class clown: an unruly boy who is always being sent to the principal's office. Critics no longer review his work but instead pass on the latest news of how his comic/grotesque vision was once again mauled by the insensitive studio system. Every buff knows it took a taunting full- page ad in Variety to force Universal to release Brazil, while the wildly over-budget The Adventures of Baron Munch-ausen is a sprawling fiasco meant to be forgiven for its extravagant visuals and cult status. Hmm. All I can say is that I tried watching the DVD over the weekend armed with a notepad and pen, and the only use the Mont Blanc got was when I kept stabbing my arm in order to stay conscious. Better to rent the documentary Lost in La Mancha. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's accidental expose details (excruciatingly) how Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote sank, and presents a more complicated and unpalatable truth: the auteur was at least as culpable as the despised money men. Another uneasy fact: the Gilliam pictures that hold together best are Twelve Monkeys and The Fisher King, the productions over which the studios had most control.

Producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein - Hollywood's actual Brothers Grimm - are the philistines currently in the dock for Gilliam-fiddling. There is undoubtedly some weight to the charges of interference. The picture appears to have been edited with the same axe that the enchanted huntsman carries to do Bellucci's bidding. But this is a movie in which Jacob Grimm (Heath Ledger) wears spectacles to denote intellectual prowess, and audiences are tipped off to the trickster siblings' fundamental decency by Will Grimm (Matt Damon) flipping a gold coin to a legless beggar. Why would the Weinsteins need to tamper when almost every scene relies on formula anyhow?

Damon and Ledger are even obliged to quarrel over the same woman (Lena Headey, who could do with a good wash). The terrible thing is that Gilliam ought to be the perfect match for Grimm. He's the past master of phasmagoria. But there's barely a wisp of magic here. Gilliam may begin by using the Grimm brothers' snake-oil exorcisms of the staged supernatural as a metaphor for FX-driven movie-making, but the references to Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty are precisely that: references. Those eager for a subversive deconstruction of myth in the vein of Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves and Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods would be better off visiting their local library and checking out Bruno Bettelheim's classic The Uses of Enchantment.

Gilliam has had his follies, but they've been in the grandiose tradition of D W Griffith's Intolerance and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900: excesses of talent and imagination. He's never been merely mediocre - until now. Worse, the poor man apparently wants to deliver and constitutionally can't. Like fellow fabulist Tim Burton, Gilliam thinks with his eyes. He can furnish a lycanthrope carried aloft by a flock of ravens and a child robbed of its facial features by a mud monster - the film's single moment of authentic bedtime dread - but Ledger and Damon in a room exchanging basic plot exposition? Forget it. Fairy tales demand a narrative thrust and Gilliam can't get from A to B. But if you're in the mood for the best dead kitten joke ever, then be my guest. Just remember to bring that Mont Blanc and jab, jab, jab.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Ambushed: Why America turned on Dubbya