I really should preface this by letting you know I had the pleasure of meeting Terry Gilliam before my screening of this film. It is relevant because it did affect my review in a very specific way. Last night THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE was the opening feature for the 38th Cambridge Film Festival and it was followed by an extensive Q&A with the man himself. Luckily, whilst I was networking (and greedily sinking plenty of free prosecco) at the gala reception beforehand, I spied Mr Gilliam in the room and anxiously went over to inform him of my fandom and hopefully not make too big a fool of myself. He was as warm and charming as I could have possibly hoped and as well as discussing how Fear & Loathing and 12 Monkeys helped develop me into the messed up person I am today, and how The Zero Theorum was critically and commercially a complete failure yet it made him even more sure of himself, we got onto his strange relationship with film criticism.
He asked two things of me before I write my review:
1) Try to keep away from any preconceived notions and just go along for the ride.
2) Don’t bloody focus on how long he’s been working on it 😂
So, out of respect for the man, I adhered to these rules and I’m so happy to say I really enjoyed the experience!
This is a film only Terry Gilliam could make. Whilst it is definitely more in tune with his latter work there are undeniable elements from film as far back as Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The story is as fantastical as you would expect however it also feels purposefully grounded in a way that seems to indicate the two sides of the artist, the dreamer and the realist.
Toby (Adam Driver) is a cynical advertising director who finds himself trapped in the outrageous delusions of an old Spanish shoe-maker (Jonathan Pryce) who believes himself to be Don Quixote. In the course of their comic and increasingly surreal adventures, Toby is forced to confront the tragic repercussions of a film he made in his idealistic youth – a film that changed the hopes and dreams of a small Spanish village forever. Can Toby make amends and regain his humanity? Can Don Quixote survive his madness and imminent death? Or will love conquer all?
In my humble opinion the story here is less important than the feelings this film evokes. Whilst I can understand some critics finding the film messy and disjointed, I found the transitions between the three acts to be quite apparent. We begin with a creative person who has become emotionally bankrupt, we move on to a person who loses everything and begins to question his reality, and we finish with a person who has rediscovered themselves and dares to dream again. I hope that isn’t too spoilery but trust me, it’s the journey that matters.
The two central performances here are absolutely wonderful! Whilst Jonathan Pryce is widely regarded as one of the best actors we have, he still manages to impress with one of the most bonkers and committed roles of his career! It’s a joyful and often hilarious performance that is hugely entertaining but has enough pathos to bring the feels when necessary. Adam Driver has not given a bad performance yet. He is a hungry actor who consistently pushes himself into new territory and he has worked with so many diverse directors in such a short time! From Lena Dunham to Noah Baumbach to Jim Jarmusch to Martin Scorsese and now to Terry Gilliam. He has a confidence and charisma here that carries a lot of the film, even when he is not being the most likeable or relatable character onscreen. Regardless of how this film does in the long run I think this will go down as a performance to remember.
No review of a Terry Gilliam film would be complete without some reference to the cinematography. This film is overflowing with creativity in terms of filmmaking craft! Practical effects and in-camera stuntwork are the order of the day with Gilliam and it has a tactility that is instantly recognisable. You feel the fabric of the sets and the props. The armour clinks when hit by real swords. The donkey that reluctantly becomes Toby’s mode of transport is endlessly unhelpful. It is very much the anti-blockbuster in that sense. A film with huge ideas and scope that is done in a very independent and DIY way.
Whilst I have been profusely positive thus far, I do have my quibbles with the film. Predominantly I think it is a bit too long. Certain characters and story threads are criminally underused and unexplored whilst other sections are crazily drawn out and over indulgent. I feel like Gilliam was intentionally making the film a chaotic piece of cinema, the overall narrative does strain at times and for all the wondrous joy that is abundant there is equally frustration and confusion. I suppose where you land with it depends entirely on your feeling for Gilliam as an auteur.
This film for me is a flawed success. A beautiful and ingenious piece of bold filmmaking which swings for the fences and hits way more times than it misses. For every moment that doesn’t quite connect there is something that raises a smile or a provokes awe. It’s a singular experience and I’m glad it exists. I really hope we see another film from the man soon as he really is one of a kind and deserves to keep giving us these weird little journeys!
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