Written by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Starring Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Joana Ribeiro
Running time: 2 hours and 12 minutes
by Fiona Underhill
With one of the most infamous gestation periods of any film in movie history, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote couldn't possibly live up to its almost mythical status, right? Well, director Terry Gilliam has achieved something which is almost worth the wait. Gilliam first got the urge to adapt the novel by Miguel de Cervantes in the 1980s, but it wasn't until 1998 that he secured the funding for the project. The production was plagued by natural disasters and illness, went massively over-budget and was never finished. Instead, Gilliam (with Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe) made a documentary called Lost in La Mancha about his quest to finish what seemed like a cursed project. Gilliam made multiple attempts to get the film going (in the twenty years since) with various different lead actors, but it is only now that he has managed to complete his magnum opus. Even now, it is not so simple or cut-and-dried - there has still been a legal dispute over the film's release and its debut at Cannes in 2018 was almost cancelled. On April 10th 2019, the film received a special one-night only engagement in US theatres and it will receive a patchy limited release later in April. If this movie had been given a proper, wide release in the fall or winter, it could have become an awards contender. At the very least, the costumes and production design are spectacular (and Oscar-worthy) and Adam Driver gives one of the best performances this year. If you are lucky enough to live where you get to see this film in a movie theater, please do so - the stunning locations are meant to be seen on a big screen.
Gilliam has gone down perhaps the only route left open to him at this stage, by making the story a multi-layered meta-commentary on the making of Don Quixote, which is (perhaps unbelievably) in-keeping with the original style of the book. Driver plays Toby, a director filming a commercial in Spain - the filming is spiraling out of control and he is depicted as a tortured genius who cannot make decisions and commit to completing his vision. Whilst in Spain, he stumbles across a DVD copy of the student film he made ten years earlier called (you guessed it) The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. We see flashbacks to the making of this film - Toby had stumbled across a shoemaker (played by Jonathan Pryce) in a rustic village and cast him as Don Quixote to make it as authentic as possible. He also dubiously casts a 15 year-old waitress named Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) as Dulcinea - Quixote's lady love. The original novel is about a deluded character who creates alter-egos for himself and those around him and believes he can revive the order of chivalry by becoming a knight errant. This delusion extends to the shoemaker, because when Toby rediscovers him ten years after filming, he now believes he actually is Don Quixote. Toby also had convinced Angelica that she could be a great actress, leading to her leaving her father Raul and traveling to various big cities in the hope of becoming a star.
The layers of illusion, delusion, allusion and the blurring of lines between reality and fantasy only increase from here on. Toby has at least two extended dream sequences where he believes he is in the 17th century, but it becomes increasingly unclear which parts are dreams as the film goes on. This film is quintessentially “Gilliamesque”, and for that we should be truly thankful. There is a theatricality that runs throughout and it includes some of the trademarks (including giants) - of Gilliam's previous work, it is most reminiscent of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and we need more ambitious fantasy epics in this mold (the last great one was probably Stardust). The stunning locations vary from windmills on a mountain top, to medieval villages, castles and a gypsy wagon draped in sheets upon which the movie is projected (surrounded by Goya paintings). The costumes are jaw-dropping – the finale takes place at a grand costume party in a castle – the simple red dress that Angelica wears is breath-taking enough, without all of the outlandish wigs and dramatic period costuming that surrounds her. This film is an absolute feast for the eyes and the thought of hardly anyone seeing it on a big screen is deeply upsetting.
It is impossible to overstate how good Driver is in this film. The entire thing hangs on his shoulders – he is Gilliam’s avatar – we are seeing everything from his perspective. Adam Driver is proving to be the best actor of his generation – only Jake Gyllenhaal comes close (and the fact that neither of them have Oscars is a travesty). Looking at Driver’s work for this year alone demonstrates his range and his excellent taste in choices of project and director – there is political drama The Report (which debuted at Sundance), the Broadway play Burn/This, Jarmusch’s zombie film The Dead Don’t Die and the upcoming Star Wars finale. My only criticism is that (except for Lena Dunham), he has not worked with enough women directors. He demonstrates his comedic prowess here and has to juggle different tones, which he does with skill and ease. Toby causes chaos on his project (at the start of the film) by letting his vision run wild and being incapable of making decisions. This karmically bites him in the ass when his entire reality goes off the rails and he has to helplessly respond to the increasingly fantastical situations.
Gilliam is doing some self-examination here, in terms of how several of his own films have been derailed by spiralling budgets and over-ambition. Gilliam has been a victim of circumstance as well, such as when Heath Ledger died. But Gilliam never chooses the easy solution – instead, he chose to cast several replacements, instead of just one (on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Gilliam is possibly commenting on his treatment of women through the character of Toby as well (accusations against Gilliam have come out recently). Toby starts the film by philandering with the boss’ wife. When he is reunited with Angelica and discovers that she is selling herself to someone, he becomes determined to make amends (to all women?) and rescue her. It is fitting that the project which has consumed so much of Gilliam’s life would become so personal and end up being his most reflective work.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is absurdly funny and well-acted (particularly by Driver), with sumptuous costume/production design and cinematography which deserves to be seen on a big screen. If you are able to see it in a movie theatre, I urge you to do so.