Saturday, May 23, 2020

Movie Reviews: Gretel and Hansel

Gretel and Hansel
directed by Osgood Perkins
The thing about folk tales is that they always mutate in response to the fears and concerns of the people retelling them. The reader or viewer may feel different ways about this, depending on what their preferred version of the tale is. 

One person's reimagined tale or different emphasis on a story's theme is another person's politically driven social justice warrior sacrilege. It is what it is. 

I would guess that almost everyone knows the Grimm Fairy Tale, Hansel and Gretel, which is for most Westerners is very firmly rooted in medieval German stories and legends. The story may or may not have originated in Germany. 

The tale does touch on some darker concerns about parental abandonment, resulting homelessness, and what would today be recognized as child abusers/serial killers. Heavy stuff for kids. 

This story version, as you might guess from the reversed names, puts more emphasis on the female sibling. In this movie, Gretel is the elder sibling. The film attempts to tell a story about female empowerment and its costs in a cold cruel patriarchal world. I didn't like this theme, not just because I'm not a feminist, but because a cannibalistic witch is not exactly the best spokeswoman for "You go girl!" messages of independence and self-actualization. 

In late medieval Germany there's a horrible famine occurring. Most versions of this story describe Hansel and Gretel as young children who are very close in age. 

This film imagines that Gretel (Sophia Lillis from IT) is a young teen on the verge of going thru the change that will mark her as a woman while her brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) is a much younger boy with little awareness of or interest in besides such activities as eating and playing. Their father has died. The children's mother (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) sends Gretel out to a rich man's house to seek work as a housekeeper. 

But this man, as is obvious from his leering, barely repressed excitement, and repeated questions about Gretel's (non-existent) sexual experience, is not really interested in hiring a housekeeper. He's very interested in having a young something else. Gretel may be inexperienced but she's not stupid. 

But Gretel's mother doesn't care. When Gretel returns home, having declined the job offer, her mother loses her patience. She doesn't care if her daughter must pimp herself out to bring food home. Losing it completely the mother tells her children to get out or die right now, whacking the table with an axe for emphasis.

Fleeing, the children find brief sustenance and protection from a hunter (Charles Babalola). But he's not in a position to take care of children either. 

After giving them food, drink, and baths, the hunter directs Hansel and Gretel to a group of decent woodsmen who should be able to provide shelter, food and work. But it's very important that Gretel and Hansel stay on the path the huntsman has provided. Not all wolves walk on four legs.

Obviously the siblings don't stay on the path. They are soon hungry again. Finding a house that smells of gingerbread, sugar and other sweet things, Hansel enters the home to stuff himself full of the cookies, fruits, bread and other items laid out on the table.

Holda (Alice Krige), a strange old woman with unblinking eyes and a wide unsettling smile, owns the home. Holda is delighted to have guests. She feeds the children large meals that have everything a starving kid might want to eat. 

Gretel's suspicions are raised because of her strange dreams and Holda's abundance of foods despite the lack of any farm animals or garden. Holda claims to recognize a kindred spirit in Gretel. Holda wants to teach Gretel a few things. Holda's pov is less than subtle. During a game of chess, Holda observes that "The king is afraid, and he should be because the queen can do whatever she wants." Gretel doesn't know about that but she knows nothing is free.

I thought the movie ran long even though it's under ninety minutes. Perhaps the themes of female power and coming of age will resonate more with people who used to be preteen girls.

I loved the forest settings. I believe the film was mostly shot in Ireland. This is a dark movie in more ways than one. It reminded me of the latest version of Macbeth.

We all have dark sides. Though Gretel is a heroine, she can get irritated, frustrated and even angry with Hansel, for whom at this point she is a surrogate mother. I didn't like what I saw as a message that true power and independence requires the rejection of motherhood or responsibility for loved ones. There was definitely some subtext about that.

This is not a horror movie full of cheap thrills and jump cuts. Krige was perfectly cast for this role. I remembered her from her role as Borg Queen from Star Trek and as the mother vampire in Stephen King's Sleepwalkers. Some people can look regal and odd at the same time. Krige has that trait.  

This was rated PG-13 but really should have been rated R. Gretel and Hansel is a moody slow paced film with just enough visual delights to lift a very patient/dedicated viewer past a story that is oft too plodding or weird for the sake of weirdness. For everyone else, unless you're deliberately looking for some arthouse vibe, let this one go.
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