Gretel & Hansel

 

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Not enough to satisfy a sweet tooth.

 
Gretel & Hansel

Into those woods: Sophia Lillis

   

The folklorists Brothers Grimm popularised the previously oral tradition of the ‘fairy tale’ with their publication of Children’s and Household Tales in 1812. Among the eighty-six stories in that initial volume were the house-nibbling, witch-roasting duo Hansel and Gretel. Although Disney largely redefined the fairy tale canon in the modern age of film, the darker origins of these well-known stories included such gruesome details as Cinderella’s step-sisters cutting off bits of their feet to fit the glass slipper and Snow White’s evil queen dancing to death in hot iron shoes. Taking inspiration from the original tale, Gretel & Hansel dwells on the darker elements, recalling such films as The Company of Wolves and Snow White: A Tale of Terror.

The title itself suggests a female focus, putting the ‘little sister’ in the lead by giving Gretel top billing. The film meanders at the start, establishing the dire world through a series of strange vignettes before hallucinogenic mushrooms take the children on a literal trip to the more familiar setting of a cottage deep in the wood. There’s an attempt to flesh out the thin story with a further tale imbedded into the plot, but it all feels a little contrived, particularly with the addition of the dreaded voiceover. Gretel is described as a girl with “action in her bones”. She matures at the cottage, learning through chess that “the queen can do whatever she wants”. Suggestions of sexual power and the often taboo subject of menstruation are all covered here. Gretel even discovers the power of rubbing a wooden staff with shortening. Visual symbolism abounds. Obvious as they are, there is a strength to these images and coming-of-age parallels, but when the tale is told, there’s simply not enough narrative substance to satisfy. 

Director Osgood ‘Oz’ Perkins, son of the legendary film actor Anthony Perkins, conjures a surreal fever dream of gloomy, evocative images. Visual echoes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages appear throughout. A weighty atmosphere is created by the gorgeous production design and cinematography. There’s nothing particularly scary here, but it’s effectively ominous and unsettling. The dialogue however, is truly grim, pun intended. At moments, the elements gel into something wonderfully surreal, but more often than not they work against each other. It’s akin to that feeling of waking up from an intense dream, only to realise how silly it all was. That uneven nature makes this an ultimately frustrating film. The gingerbread house looks good, but it sure is stale.

CHAD KENNERK

Cast: Sophia Lillis, Sammy Leakey, Charles Babalola, Jessica De Gouw, Alice Krige.

Dir Oz Perkins, Pro Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Fred Berger, Screenplay Rob Hayes, Ph Galo Olivares, Pro Des Jeremy Reed, Ed Josh Ethier and Julia Wong, Music Robin Coudert, Costumes Leonie Prendergast.

Orion Pictures/Automatik Entertainment/Bron Creative-United Artists Releasing.
87 mins. Ireland/USA/Canada/ South Africa. 2020. US Rel: 31 January 2020. Cert. PG-13.