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Good Charlotte: Lena Headey brings a touch of Charlotte Rampling's leonine beauty to 'The Brothers Grimm.'

Very Grim Indeed

Terry Gilliam stoops to 'Van Helsing' depths in sodden fantasy 'The Brothers Grimm'

By Richard von Busack

WILHELM AND Jacob Grimm were such devoted brothers that neither used his first name on their anthologies. They were so close that they shared halves of the same desk, and they were buried side by side. Such bonding in the ego-wrenching business of writing was bound to raise someone's contempt.

Ehren Kruger's script for Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm portrays the famous folklorists of the early 1800s as squabblers. The meek Jacob (Heath Ledger) has been in the doghouse with his handsome older brother, Wilhelm (Matt Damon), ever since a childhood incident. A haphazard, seemingly one-take pretitle explains this ancient quarrel: Jacob, a credulous boy, was sent out to trade the family cow for medicine but came back with magic beans.

As adults, the traveling folklorists hire a stage troupe to create witches, and then they seek money from the local yokels to "fight" the witches. Because of this fraud, they're arrested by one Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce), representative of Napoleon, as well as his Sicilian torture master, Cavaldi (Peter Stormare). The feuding Grimms are hustled to an accursed remote village. In the tradition of old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movies, these mountebanks suddenly find themselves up against something genuinely uncanny to flee from.

The peasants are haunted by a mysterious tower in the woods, occupied by an evil queen (Monica Bellucci). Joining the cowardly Grimms in their investigation is an impassively mannish huntress named Angelika (Lena Headey). Headey, as ravishingly leonine as Charlotte Rampling, is the film's one redeeming value. When enchanted, she is particularly enchanting; lying in a trance in a stone coffin, she looks like the pale but still fierce ladies in Burne-Jones' paintings.

Gilliam is negligent when directing his actors, but he certainly has a good eye for actresses. He discovered Sarah Polley for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and in the same film, he gave Uma Thurman a key early role as Venus. He cast Kim Greist in such a powerful role in Brazil that it seemed at the time that she would go on to great things. The richly maned Headey may ultimately be the part of The Brothers Grimm that leaves the strongest impression.

Despite Headey, this is an unhappy film, handily Gilliam's worst—a slapdash effort that has more in common with Van Helsing than it does with Time Bandits. As in Tim Burton's very similar Sleepy Hollow, you can tell which sections interested Gilliam, and which ones bored him.

Animators turned directors are enthusiastic about images, as opposed to the mechanics of a story. There are startling images: a werewolf tottering on spindly canine legs as he advances upon Little Red Riding Hood; a witch shattered, like glass, into jagged pieces (a raven flies away with the shard containing her eye). But to get to these tidbits, one travels through long stretches of hectic yet tired scenes of the grousing brothers, scenes that are rushed and antsy, as if they just delayed the good parts. Gilliam didn't work out ways of making the clash between the brothers amusing.

It seems as if American film directors who live in England are fated to become stagey. Is it because they're attending so much more theater over there? The actors, loaded with stage whiskers, carry on with shouting and bumbling broadness. (There is logic to the whiskers, though. Under ordinary circumstances, Ledger and Damon are such identical actors, something had to be done to make them look different.)

The Brothers Grimm boasts a novel setting, "French Occupied Germany." The movies always tell stories of how Germany invaded France; rarely do we see stories about how France hit the Germans first, in Louis XIV's time or Napoleon's. Despite the setting, Pryce redoes the character he played in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: a murderous, self-righteous bureaucrat, a modern scoffer disgusted at fiction.

Pauline Kael supposed that these naysaying figures always represent Gilliam's producers. Perhaps. Remember that Gilliam once named his company "Poopoo Productions" just to have the pleasure of watching entertainment lawyers saying that childish phrase again and again. More simply, Pryce's waspish, arrogant bureaucrat represents Gilliam's disgust for the man of reason against the man of fantasy. It's a false dichotomy for someone as bedazzled by special effects as Gilliam is.

Like Stanley Kubrick before him, the director has his crochets against the modern world. He distrusts the Enlightenment, as if the light of reason blazed out all the interesting shadows of the old world. Gilliam's argument would be more appealing if he made the medieval world something more than a muddy abomination of torture chambers, scowling gargoyles and mistreated animals.

It's not so much chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning as it is chaos illuminated by flashes of chaos. The modern fortresses and the haunted woods are equally stripped of allure. Gilliam provides no real point of entry for the viewer between his twin worlds of logical and illogical cruelty.

The Brothers Grimm (PG-13, 118 min.) Directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Ehren Kruger, photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel and starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger opens Friday.

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From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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