For a quarter century Terry Gilliam has been on a quixotic quest to make a film inspired by the famous Cervantes novel. It’s been a near Jobsian task, fighting rain, flood, winds and other near biblical torrents, along with the deaths of some that were to participate, financial calamities and other plagues that befell the production.
It seems that even the gods of cinema didn’t want The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to exist.
Yet despite a last minute attempt to fell the work, from a minor stroke that affected the director as well as a lawsuit by one in a long line of producers that wished to keep it from screening at the Cannes film festival, the film finally lives. As the title card declares, here at last after 25 years we have the Terry Gilliam film long promised, this grand tale of the man of La Mancha as told by the brilliant and irascible voice of one of the true battlers of Hollywood, a visionary artist who time after time has attacked his own giants (metaphorical or otherwise) and survived to tell the tale.
Well, was it all worth it?
Sure, what the hell. While I wouldn’t wish these events on anyone, the final result is a film that may not set the world on fire but is a fine, entertaining addition to Gilliam’s canon. It was unlikely to ever be more than that, and thanks to one key ingredient this is likely the best version from all the detours that we could expect.
That ingredient happens to be Adam Driver, and without doubt he is the heart and soul of the film. His charisma and range are the key to any of the films truly engaging moments, and thanks to his ability to shift between near slapstick to believable rage we’re guided skillfully through the twisting narrative.
Obviously the film isn’t a pure retelling of the Quixote narrative, owing as much to Fellini and William blake as it does to classics of Spanish literature. It’s a nested narrative that shifts between time and place in dreamlike ways, characteristic of Gilliam’s proclivity for such things. There are moments that recall Brazil, Time Bandits and even Jabberwocky, at times. The underappreciated Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus shares a similar visual style at times as well. Yet the overt comparison maybe to The Adventures to Baron Munchausen, a similarly tale of grandiose delusions, where the travails of the obstinate creative force battle the villainy of conformity and stultification.
In order to take us on this journey we’re guided in the temporal and narrative jumps by Driver, and its his ability to attenuate between scenes that makes everyone and everything look better. Jonathan Pryce is a treasure, and though his take at Quixote is slightly arch his presence too is a welcome one. Stellan Skarsgård and Olga Kurylenko play far more broadly, with differing degrees of success, but elevate what’s on the page as well. Brit actor Jason Watkins does well as Driver’s toadying agent, and relative newcomer Joana Ribeiro provides plenty for the lead to work with.
As the storyline twists and turns we’re treated at times to moments of sublime whimsy and others a bit of a clunky divergence. This unevenness is baked into this type of narrative, and while more works than doesn’t it still makes for a bumpy ride.
Freed from the baggage of pent-up expectation it’s fair to set this favourably along with the rest of Gilliam’s oeuvres. What it may lose in freshness we gain in a sense of out-of-timeness, as if the film itself is a kind of strange artifact not quite of the contemporary movie scene but somehow still out there telling its own story. The film itself metatextually owes so much to the tale being told that it created a fascinating ouroboros, where one sees Gilliam’s struggles in more than one central character.
It’s a fit of mad determination and slight lunacy that kept this project alive, but that takes nothing away from the fact that it was done so because at the core it’s a pretty satisfying tale to tell in this Gilliamesque way. The biggest shame for the film would be to have it only appreciated as a curiosity, a work only remembered as the strange output by an irascible filmmaker like the later works of Welles, fodder for the fanatics and ignored by most others. This is a fun frolic, one that may seem completely atemporal compared to contemporary blockbusters but very much a film of this time.
It deserves to be seen.
We need films like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to remind us of our own implausible quests and battles against the quotidian, where the world of chivalry meant that courage and honour could be a foil to any negativity, mental or physical, that may stand in one’s way. Gilliam’s film is more admirable than perfect, but maybe that’s enough, for not every film needs to be a home run in order to have a profound impact.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a continuation of the legacy of filmmaking going back to Meliés who believed that through moments of theatrical amazement films could enthral and entertain. Gilliam’s latest may not equal his greatest works, but they speak to their qualities, and remind us all to take chances and learn that sometimes the most ridiculous of quests is often reward in and of itself. We should all find the courage to tilt at our windmills, jousting against our inner demons and finding our nobility within.