Sometime in 2005, I went to the movie theater with some bored friends and we ended up watching a film called The Brothers Grimm. Literally no one else I was with liked it, but I loved it, bought it, and watched it over and over for years. In spite of its nonsensical nature, it had an A-list cast, including the late great Heath Ledger, who was my favorite actor as a kid thanks to his turns in stuff like A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You. After his untimely death, I put all his movies away for later, and finally unearthed this one this past weekend. Upon rewatching it, I realized that The Brothers Grimm is a fun fairy tale-esque movie, with some great acting, but it doesn’t succeed at being anything more than that.
Spoilers after the jump!
The movie imagines a world where Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, the eponymous Brothers Grimm, are con artists instead of storytellers. They travel around the French-occupied German countryside and sell tall tales of witches and trolls (all of which they create with the help of some props and a dedicated team). When the locals are sufficiently scared, they charge a fortune to “kill” the supernatural creatures. But their lucrative career is brought to an abrupt halt when the French general Delatombe has them arrested and tells them that he knows exactly what they’re up to, and that in fact there seems to be another team doing the same thing as them, stealing young girls from the village of Marbaden. Delatombe tells the brothers that if they catch whoever it is in Marbaden, he would consider letting them live. Faced with the prospect of either stopping some criminals or imminent death, the brothers head off to Marbaden, where they quickly discover that it’s not humans stealing the girls—it’s a real witch.
The plot is pretty simplistic, and when it comes to the more fantastical stuff or delivering any kind of real message, it fails. It doesn’t subvert fairy tale tropes as one might imagine and it even upholds some of the more gendered ones. The witch in the Marbaden forest was a queen hundreds of years ago, and when a plague came, she locked herself in a tall tower and performed a spell for eternal life while her kingdom and husband died around her. She had eternal life, but not eternal youth, and now that a lunar eclipse is coming, she’s stealing girls from the village to restore her youth and beauty. Will and Jake defeat her by breaking her enchanted mirror and then restore all the girls to life with a “kiss of true love”, none of which is ever really explained, which makes the movie more of a fairy tale pastiche than anything that really subverts or revises the classic fairy tales. The queen is still one-dimensional and sexist and nothing about how she was defeated made any sense. Angelika, a Marbaden woman who’s helping the brothers, says that things in the forest changed when the Christians invaded, which could have been another interesting twist on fairy tales, considering that many fairy tales in their original form were more interesting than the Disney-fied versions we know. But that’s also brought up once and then never again, since the rest of the village ignored Angelika and she was then damseled for the brothers to save.
However, there is a strong emotional core to the story, and that comes from the acting. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger were excellent as Will and Jake, and they were backed up by a fantastic Lena Headey as Angelika, who, as these things go, was shown as far more capable than the brothers before she was damseled. The cast was rounded out by Jonathan Pryce as Delatombe, Peter Stormare as his delightfully obnoxious Italian assistant Cavaldi, and Monica Bellucci as the queen. All of these great performances helped turn an otherwise unremarkable movie into a fun adventure.
The relationship between the brothers was the true selling point for me. Will is the older brother and constantly worries about Jake, the younger brother, because Jake is a dreamer who really believes in magic, often to the detriment of the family. Jake, meanwhile, thinks that Will, who’s the jock of the story, doesn’t care about him and only cares about girls and being famous. Though this is a stereotype we know well, it’s made more unique and believable by two fantastic performances from Damon and Ledger, who were such fans of their roles that when Damon was originally cast as Jake and Ledger as Will, they actually petitioned director Terry Gilliam to let them switch parts. The brothers were basically a better-acted precursor to Supernatural, and since I soon fell into that mud pit after watching this movie, I can see where the appeal comes from.
Though The Brothers Grimm is far from a great movie, I would still recommend it if you’re looking for an entertaining way to kill an hour or two. Who knows—maybe that TV version they’ve been talking about for years will finally become reality, and hopefully then we can finally get this movie’s charm without its terrible plot.