Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (BFI London Film Festival)


By all that is sane and fair, Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited adaptation of Cervantes’s monumental comic novel- Don Quixote, is finally here. While the film’s sheer existence is a cause for celebration, keeping the long and arduous journey to the screen in mind. (The painfully candid 2002 documentary- Lost in La Mancha covers the unmaking of the first attempt). The result is something of a tangled and fascinating undertaking.

Taking place in modern-day, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about advertising director, Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver), who is in the state of creative frustration whilst producing a commercial involving two of the novel’s characters. He comes across a copy of a student film he made about the famous adventurer. From there, the picture charts his rediscovery of the actors he cast and the effect that his film had on their lives.

To its credit, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is made with all the gusto of the Knight of the Rueful Countenance. The film is at its best when Gilliam is directly adapting some of the novel’s most famous sequences. In particular, the costume party section takes one of the key adventures and turns it into an amusing and emotional series of events. At the same time, it also evokes some of the sublime ironies found in the book’s second part.

The tail end section also features some of Gilliam’s most interesting
camera work. Aesthetically, he makes the momentous occasion seem like a strangely surreal experience with dizzying dutch angles and a piece of documentary footage, with how the lavish festivities are captured. In many other pictures, this mixture of camera moves would be inane and pretentious. But here, it serves to underscore Gilliam’s persistent fascination with the blurred line between fantasy and reality.
Within this larger section are production design elements that feel like Gilliam is echoing the homemade and tactile quality of his earlier pictures.

One particularly striking example is a recurring image of a large stack of old chairs that reaches the ceiling. When looking at its use, it feels as though I was looking at an elaborate stage prop that reminded me of Gilliam’s theatrical tendencies.

The director is also able to evoke the novel’s universal elements. Grisoni casts a humble Spanish shoemaker called Javier (Jonathan Pryce) to play the title character. Throughout the making, we see the non-actor desperately attempting to inhabit the character. When the director returns years later, Javier has in a sense become Don Quixote de La Mancha. As much as Cervantes’s Quixote represented an escape from the malaise of middle age, Javier’s inhabiting of the title character is a response to his humble and quiet existence.

In the lead role, Pryce is commendable in his spiritedness. He imbues the novel’s famous lines with conviction and sly comic wit. However, he casts the biggest impression as Javier, illustrating a sense of humbleness and reserved determinism that makes his later transformation powerfully poignant (as a man who has finally grasped the part).

Despite these elements, the film is problematic. Crucially, the aspects that don’t directly deal with the novel feel deficient and superfluous. Most of the characters end up feeling like broadly drawn caricatures as opposed to human beings. One particularly blatant example is a Russian character who feels like a pantomime stand-in for Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Harvey Weinstein respectively.

Thematically, the film is about the longstanding harm that cinema can cause people. Other than being a clever set up for one plot point, the theme is never particularly mined well. Additionally, in the context of one of the characters, the theme ends up feeling sketchily developed, nebulous and simplistic.

The film is also bursting at the seams with some painfully excessive comic sequences. A repeated gag involving a misunderstanding of the supposed dalliances that Grisoni has with two of the female characters seeks to make the film feel like a lost Carry On picture. These scenes also make the structure feel lumbering, awkward and incoherent.

One could read many of Gilliam’s choices as a means of directly adapting Cervantes’s text. Structurally, the novel is a series of adventurous vignettes that varied in their shades of comedy, tragedy and melodrama. With this structure, Cervantes was pointedly mocking and celebrating the melodramatic literature that shaped Quixote’s chivalrous mindset. Gilliam’s structure never feels satirical as much as a comedic stockpiling that is meant to get us from one adapted adventure to the next.

Funny, maddening and occasionally meandering, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in some ways captures the spirit of Cervantes’s novel. The material is a perfect match for Gilliam insofar as he matches the author’s knack for earnest absurdity. However, I came away wishing that Gilliam’s viewpoint was less muddy and that I did not have to trudge through so many unnecessary elements to get to his stylistic adaptation.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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