In the heart of a forest, there are sudden scurryings by the half-seen. A little girl in a red cloak starts to run, only gradually realizing that it is for her life. This sense of the ominous and the awful that lurks in the dark places of the earth, and of the human mind, is what we love and fear in the fairy tale.
The idea of a Terry Gilliam film about 'The Brothers Grimm' automatically sparks our interest. He is a director fascinated with the interface between the world of dreams and the mundane, whether in the burlesque mode of 'Jabberwocky' and 'Time Bandits' or the more complex meditations of 'Munchausen' or 'Twelve Monkeys' about fantasy, lies and madness. After the disastrous failure of his Quixote project to make it past the first days of shooting, it is reassuring to see this original and inventive director working again.
Or perhaps not. This is, perhaps of all Gilliam's films, the one whose flaws are most simply those of the conventional contemporary Hollywood movie - camera work that is overbusy to the point of inducing motion sickness, cheap psychologizing remorselessly underlined, witless dialogue we can hardly hear for overmiked sound and scoring. MGM pulled out of the project and were replaced by the Weinsteins of Buena Vista - who sacked Gilliam's original cinematographer. A director who has worked with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown is reduced to using the words of Ehren Kruger, whose previous career highlights were the Americanizations of the Japanese horror film 'Ring' and its sequel.
The Brothers Grimm, in this version, wander a war-torn Germany not so much collecting folk tales as faking witches and trolls, and getting paid to make them go away. A rationalist French General conscripts them to expose other frauds - only the enchanted forest that is stealing a village's young girls is real. The brothers have to conquer their cynicism and engage with a proper understanding of story - only thus can the monstrous Mirror Queen be prevented from clawing her way back into the world.
If the ideas and sometimes the look of the thing owe much to Angela Carter and Neil Jordan's 'The Company of Wolves', that is at least a great film to be influenced by. If some of the ideas about story owe as much to Terry Pratchett as to Carter, that is no bad thing either; under the sometimes routine jokes and comic patter, Pratchett is deeply thoughtful about these matters. In the end, though, the script relies far too heavily on conventional Hollywood wisdom - women with agency have to be tamed or destroyed and the most important thing in the world is the reconciliation of estranged men. It is never a good idea, come to that, for characters to shriek 'Noooo!' more than once in the course of a film.
Some of the performances are excellent, and not the ones we would necessarily expect. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are unusually good, given what they are working with, as the brothers, perhaps because they play against typecasting with Damon as the brash extrovert, Ledger as the weedy dreamer. Lena Headey as the competent villager Angelika and Monica Bellucci as the evil Queen are as good as the film lets them be. On the other hand, Jonathan Pryce reprises his brutal rationalist from 'Munchausen' only with a bad French accent, and Peter Stomare as an Italian torturer mugs and mows to an extent that is torture in itself. Performances as bad as those of Pryce and Stomare have to be held to the director's account - this is a film where he either lost control or stopped caring.
If I have been uncharacteristically silent for the past few days, it is not anything to worry about, just a thoroughly beastly cold. I've been well enough to get out and do things that need to be done, like interviewing George RR Martin, and to go to the library, but not to go to the cinema, or have fun, or concentrate to write.
On the bright side, when I was at Hackney library on Tuesday, I saw a man outside walking a golden ferret on a leash, and he let me stroke its head and shake its little paw. In some other life, where I am cleaner and tidier, I will have a ferret, and love it utterly.