In the late 1700’s in Germany a young boy, Jacob goes to search for medicine for his small sister. When he returns with a handful of beans instead of medicine, his brother Wilhelm browbeats him. After all, Jacob believes what the man told him about the beans, that they are magic and will cure his sister.
By 1796 the two brothers, Will (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger) have become a couple of charlatans who travel around French-occupied Germany ridding towns and villages of witches and such. They are summoned to one town, listen to their troubles, write up a price estimate for their services, and carry out a kind of exorcism. They collect their considerable fee, and their two helpers who demand more pay for carrying out their successful ruse – again.
They are apprehended at their next stop by an Italian soldier Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) who hauls them in front of Napoleon’s general Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) who sentences them to death for their shenanigans. However, several young girls have disappeared from a village nearby Delatombe promises the men their freedom if they can find the girls.
Being frauds, the two men have to improvise. Jacob writes down the stories they hear in a journal while Will seems to be the brains in the outfit. They must go into the dark woods to find the girls and the only one who knows the forest is a young woman, Angelika (Lena Heady). She draws pictures of her family and though she seems unsympathetic, she mourns the loss of her father and her two younger sisters, the first children to disappear.
From here on out, director Terry Gilliam’s fantastical visual story-telling runs riot using images and characters from the many fairy tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm (Jacob born in 1785 and Wilhelm in1786 in Hanau, Germany, near Frankfurt during their literary and linguistic career from 1806 to about 1859.
The Brothers Grimm is not what I expected, though knowing Gilliam I ought to have known better. I thought it might actually be biographical. The film was anachronistic, funny, far-fetched and ultimately very entertaining because this is Gilliam “imagining” what the Brothers Grimm might have been like in his world. Although not one of the many fairy tales that the Brothers Grimm recorded during their career is told in its entirety, many of them are integrated into this somewhat outlandish pastiche of horror, fantasy, and thriller, and yes, comedy.
One thing Gilliam does is remind us that the original fairy-tales that have given rise to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella were not very pleasant, that happily-ever-after is mostly our wish to come true, and that fear of the unknown or not understanding the reasons for the bad things that happen to us generates superstition (to Gilliam even the parish priest is on board, believing in witches, curses and such) and nightmares to explain the bad things or make some kind of meaning of them.
I think The Brothers Grimm may prove to be a good tool for those who study language and fairy-tales, not to say psychology. And did I mention the art direction, the dead queen with a severe cuticle problem, crunchy roaches and bugs, and the sets? Well done, if you like darkness.
The acting was OK, but the visuals and action rather overwhelmed the performances. I thought casting Heath Ledger as a nerd worked well – he was believable.
(At one point Will taps on a crucifix as he explains their approach to solving a supernatural problem signalling to us that superstition has many forms. Lots of Catholic religious imagery I suppose because of the times the film represented. In the last analysis, there is much to talk about in the film.) Be sure to look up the Brothers Grimm or google them; their contribution to German literature and history is impressive and it continues to Hollywood today.
A friend posted this at the end of an email:
“The movie never changes. It can’t change, but every time you see it, it seems different, because you’re different. You see different things.”
– Terry Gilliam, in 12 Monkeys on the subject of audience theory.