Perhaps one of the most infamously tortured films of recent times, the release of this sees director Terry Gilliam’s Orson Welles-type odyssey finally making it to the big screen after nearly 30 years.
It’s hard to imagine just what development hell he and his co-writer Tony Grisoni have gone through over that time. Actors have come and gone, fallen ill (and even died), there have been endless rewrites, funding crashes, natural disasters when they actually did get on location, and the sense that, really, Gilliam at least must love the pain.
Part of the process of this lengthy, drawn-out failure was even documented and released in its own right as Man From La Mancha in 2002. It was a critical and commercial success as well (two words again that Gilliam struggles to conjoin as often as cinephiles might wish).
You can read elsewhere at length about the nightmare that was this beast, but now, despite everything that seemed heaven-sent to stop it, it’s now on celluloid and coming to a cinema near you.
Gilliam’s “Don” opens with the deluded eponymous hero charging towards a “giant” (the famous windmill), but then we pull back to see that it’s a shoot for a TV commercial (or is it a much-delayed movie?) that’s being directed by the distracted Toby (Adam Driver), a wunderkind now long out of ideas.
When Toby learns that the village where he long-ago made his career-starting student film (Don Quixote of course) is nearby, he reminisces about happier times and pops on a bike to go and see what it’s like now. Has the old shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) who played Quixote died, and what about gorgeous young Angelica (Ribiero), for that matter?
After arriving he learns that Angelica left years ago – to pursue a failed career as an actress – but the shoemaker is still there. He’s kept as a virtual prisoner by his sympathetic fellow villagers because he still thinks he really is Don Quixote, the errant knight, slayer of giants, and rescuer of damsels.
He also thinks that Toby is his loyal sidekick Sancho Panza, finally come to rescue him – and soon enough an incredulous Toby is on a donkey, travelling alongside Don Quixote on what could be an amazing adventure. Or is it?
A film that’s a satire, fantasy, comedy and adventure all wrapped up in something that’s a strange and surreal day in the life of Toby (or maybe it’s all in his head; he does get bashed on the bonce a lot), this is in many ways Gilliam to the max.
There are giants, devils, imps, elaborate costumes and parties, astonishing scenery and visuals, some moments of animation, heroes fighting with swords, gorgeous women to be rescued, and so much more.
It’s like Pop Rocks for the brain and the senses, and frequently looks amazing – the locations in Spain and Portugal seeming right out of a fairytale.
I wanted to like – dammit, I wanted to love it – more than I did, but at times the excess extravagance got too much, the convoluted fantasy/reality/blur storyline soon racing off into the sunset of logic, and several apparent endings seeming necessary before the conclusion when it seems we’re back where we started (in a kind of way).
It’s impossible not to imagine this is – understandably – Gilliam’s mind poured out after all the time he spent on this, and can you blame him for going so deep into the abyss?
That it really doesn’t make much sense won’t bother his many fans, and to be reminded so often of Brazil when you see the marvelously committed Pryce chewing the scenery is a joy.