Terry Gilliam’s long gestating project was for many years one of the most famous unmade films ever known, what with the documentary Lost In La Mancha released back in 2002 covering his first attempt at making it which was beset with problems including flash floods damaging valuable equipment and lead actor Jean Rochefort getting injured, meaning filming had to be put on hold for months on end and then the money ran out. Plagued by such horrendous bad luck many thought he’d never get the chance to make it, but in 2017 with a new cast he finally finished filming and it should have been released last year, but of course life’s never that simple for Gilliam and a legal fight with the producer ensued and so it was delayed. Now that’s been resolved and it’s finally out at cinemas the question everyone’s asking is was it worth the wait? And so you don’t have to skip down to the end of the review to find out I’ll answer it now – No, of course not. But despite it’s flaws it’s without doubt an intriguing work and much better than any of Gilliam’s recent films.
It’s a meta affair where Tony (Adam Driver) is directing a commercial based on Don Quixote but is struggling to get it to work. Stellan Skarsgård plays a character known only as The Boss who’s funding the work, and arse kissing producer Rupert (Jason Watkins, superb as always) is on hand to fluff the ego of anyone important. But when Tony happens to find a copy of his student film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote we cut back to the making of it, where Toby finds Javier (Jonathan Pryce), a humble Spanish shoemaker and casts him as his Quixote along with other village folk who make up the rest of his cast. It then turns out that the current production just happens to be close to the village he shot his student film and so he decides to visit it, and once back there he meets Javier again and finds that he’s gone full on crazy and believes himself to be Don Quixote.
It’s a curious beast and a film which only partially works. The first hour and a half is frothy and light with a lot of very likeable moments, it’s charming and then some and Jonathan Pryce is quite frankly superb, it’s a career best and that’s saying something considering the amount of great performances the man has turned in. But it’s a film that the more you think about it the lesser a piece it becomes, and it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. An enormous amount of extremely convenient coincidences take place from Toby meeting Javier again to the way he bumps in to romantic interest Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) and various other characters, and it makes the film feel contrived. The satire of the movie industry is heavy handed to say the least, and on a very literal basis it’s about a man with a severe mental illness, the film does touch upon this but only briefly and it cries out to be explored a little further.
More of an issue is that Toby’s something of an unpleasant idiot, after almost seducing the Boss’s wife Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko) he’s happy to let a local gypsy take the blame who is then arrested by the police, and he refuses to take responsibility for his actions in general. Most of the time he acts like a spoilt brat who treats others appallingly, the good Don especially, and though his character is eventually sort of redeemed it’s hard to see why Angelica and Jacqui lust after him in the first place. The film’s treatment of women is pretty questionable in general, and I can understand why some critics have called it misogynistic though I would’t go quite that far myself. Admittedly Toby’s not a character we’re supposed to love, at least not initially, but actively disliking him was never part of Gilliam’s plan and I found myself feeling such a thing at several points. It’s not Driver’s fault either, his performance is impressive, but he’s let down by a patchy and uneven script.
Also disappointing is that during the final forty five minutes the film becomes blander as Toby obsesses over Angelica, the film takes on a melodramatic tone and though the ending almost redeems events it’s not enough to save the whole film. Which is frustrating as there is an enormous amount to enjoy in the first half, when Pryce is on screen it zips along at a great pace and his antics often provoke laughter. It’s also beautifully shot and looks sumptuous, the ideas Gilliam plays around with about the joys of ignoring reality and living out your dreams are appealing, and all of the actors are on top form. But it’s messy overall, worth seeing for sure but it’s doubtful that it’ll be a film you’ll fall in love with, or maybe even like with.