By Liam Lacey
Gilliam has earned affection and respect during his post-Monty Python filmmaking career (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King) with his visual invention, surreal fantasy, and humour. Apart from the relief of seeing a conclusion to a long story, there’s scant pleasure to be found in the long-winded and jumbled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Gilliam's earlier failure to make the film — about a contemporary commercial director who becomes Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza — was chronicled in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. The director made several attempts to relaunch the production between 2003 and 2016 with a variety of actors in the dual roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza before finally completing the current film in time for last year’s Cannes film festival. The film, starring Adam Driver as a Toby, an American commercial director, and Jonathan Pryce as a Spanish cobbler who believes he is Don Quixote, is launched with a one-night-only screening, this Wednesday, pending announcements of a wider release.
The film begins with that most familiar of the Don Quixote images: an old knight, attacking a windmill which he believes is a giant, and ending up caught in its sails. A moment later, we discover we are actually on a set where director Toby (Driver) is shooting an over-budget television commercial, under the concerned eye of a producer (Stellan Skarsgård). At the end of the scene, the boss asks Toby to keep an eye on his hot-to-trot young wife, Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko, in a blond wig).
At a hotel restaurant that night, Toby sees a gypsy hawking bootleg DVDs, including one of Toby’s, a black-and-white student film he made of the Don Quixote story a decade before. To gain access to a DVD player and to watch his old footage, he accepts an invitation to Jacqui’s room for a triste, with the predictable slamming hotel door farcical finish.
As it happens, Toby’s commercial shoot takes place near a mountain pueblo named Los Sueños (the dreams) where Toby shot his original film. He borrows a crew member’s motorcycle and rides back to the mountain village, where he discovers that his earlier film left a destructive imprint on the village. The teenaged waitress, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) with whom Toby used to flirt, has become a “whore,” according to her father, lured to the big city of Madrid by dreams of a movie career.
Meanwhile, the cobbler named Javier who played Don Quixote now lives in a caravan on the outside of village and believes himself to be the real Don Quixote. When Toby comes upon him, he claims Toby as his peasant sidekick, Sancho Panza. Pryce — hair and beard bedraggled and fitted with a prosthetic nose — looks the part, though his Anglo-flavoured bray is distracting. Driver flails alongside him in exaggerated reaction takes, never really finding a believable through-line on the character.
After an accidental fire, and a police pursuit that leaves at least one cop dead, the two men are on the run, which covers the first 20 minutes of the film. From then on, we’re subjected to a barely coherent series of episodes in search of a purpose, where Toby gets knocked out or falls asleep a lot so reality and dreams are confused. Toby and Don Quixote confront a windmill, of course. They end up in a village of illegal immigrants that, in a dream, turns into a 17th century village, or maybe a terrorist cell.
There’s a bag of gold that Toby discovers and then he tumbles through a crevice into an underground cave where he encounters the former teen waitress, Angelica, taking a shower in a waterfall. (The film isn’t going to win points for progressive gender views). It turns out Angelica has, indeed, become a whore, or rather an escort, kept by Alexei (Jordi Mollà) a repulsive Russian vodka company oligarch, with whom Toby’s boss is attempting to land a contract.
All this culminates in an elaborate Holy Week celebration at a castle owned by Alexei, from whom Toby decides to rescue Anjelica. The climactic party, in period costume, involves a parade of those giant papier-maché puppets, used in various Spanish and Portuguese festivals. Apart from the puppets and a brief wondrous appearance of three obese giants, Quixote lacks the hoped-for Gilliam surreal visual pop.
The principle consolation here is the touristic one, a chance to see the rugged Spanish landscape (also shot Portugal and the Canary Islands) with its antique towns, cathedrals and castles, shot around Madrid, Avila, Seville and Toledo. They remind us how, in Spain, much of the monumental past looms over the humdrum present. That seems to be the dynamic Gilliam was trying to convey but he doesn’t get much further than setting up a tall tale that stumbles and face plants.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Screenplay by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. Starring Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, and Joana Ribeiro. Plays one night only, April 10, in Cineplex theatres nationwide (including Toronto’s Cineplex Yonge-Dundas) with encore screening dates to be confirmed.