Review: Brazil (15) / Directed by: Terry Gilliam / Screenplay by: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown / Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert de Niro, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Ian Richardson / Release Date: Out Now
Resolutely, spectacularly untainted by the ravages of time, ‘Brazil’ is almost certainly Terry Gilliam’s modern masterpiece. It’s one of those films it’s easy to take for granted because you’ve almost certainly seen it before at least once, admired it or maybe even loved it but somehow it sort of slips into the backwaters of the memory, never forgotten but almost always under-appreciated. Sometimes it takes a casual reacquaintance - this time courtesy of a sprightly new sparkling Blu-ray release - to make you just find the time to actually watch the damn thing again. Should you do so - and you should - you may sit there for a while after it’s ended, gawping at the screen as the credits roll and muttering to yourself ‘Blimey, I’d forgotten it was that good…’ That’s what I did.
‘Brazil’ (originally entitled ‘1984 and a half’) is, of course, the film that more or less scuppered former Python animator Gilliam’s Hollywood film career. It’s a testament to his talent and his dogged determination that he’s pressed on and added a number of bizarre and eclectic credits to his name - more ‘mainstream’ stuff like ‘The Fisher King’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’ - as well as disasters-waiting-to-happen like ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ (once a firm favourite, now virtually unwatchable) and the horrible ‘Brothers Grimm’ not to mention the abandoned ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ (rain, amongst other things, stopped play - check out the superb, near-tragic documentary ‘Lost in La Mancha’ for the full and frank fascinating story). When Gilliam delivered the final cut of ‘Brazil’ his first proper non-Monty Python feature, he gave studio chiefs apoplexy. ‘Brazil’, they argued, was unreleasable, uncommercial, it was going nowhere. They hacked it down to a running time of just over 90 minutes, compromising Gilliam’s singular vision and started a war which has been simmering away ever since, with Gilliam always the outsider, struggling to direct the sort of films he wants to make regardless of whether they’re fashionable and commercial or not. And ‘Brazil’ is where it all began…
Set “somewhere in the 20th century” ‘Brazil’ tells the labyrinthine story of timid, underachieving Sam Lowry (played by Gilliam favourite Jonathan Pryce) working in an unassuming clerical job in a grim, dystopian, Orwellian future dominated by rules and regulations and paperwork and ducts. He dreams of life as a sort of superhero-cum-birdman, soaring high in the clouds and coming to the rescue of his dream-woman. When a rare Government clerical error causes the incarceration of the innocent Harry Buttle instead of suspected terrorist Harry Tuttle (de Niro), Sam finds that the woman of his dreams is real and that she’s a suspected terrorist too. With the help of his vain and manipulative mother Ida (Helmond) Sam engineers a promotion to the ‘Information Retrieval’ department where he’s able to track down the mysterious Jill (Greist) before setting off to find her and declare his love for a woman he’s only ever met in his dreams…
In truth, trying to summarise the plot of ‘Brazil’ is a bit like trying to knit fog because the film can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. It’s a wild Gilliam flight of fancy with vivid and fantastical imagery (Gilliam’s Python illustrations brought to life), it’s a quirky condemnation of officialdom and authoritarianism, it’s a cautionary tale of the Shape of Things That Could Still Come, it’s a sweet love story. It’s a wild fantasy, a comedy and, in some ways, it’s a horror story. No happy ending here either, the cause of much of the Hollywood disquiet which met the original cut’s arrival in 1985.
The best way to enjoy ‘Brazil’ is not to read about it but to experience it. Drink in its glorious, gorgeous imagery, the stunning, stark direction, the beautiful production design and visual effects (all accomplished pre-CGI, thank you) and savour career-best performances by the likes of Pryce, Palin and Helmond. Some critics argue that this 143-minute edit is a bit too long and while it’s true that there are moments of flabbiness and self-indulgence, the world of ‘Brazil’ is too fascinating and wonderfully-realised to really want to spend a moment less there than Gilliam is able to offer. Do yourself a favour and visit (or revisit) ‘Brazil’ as soon as you can - you won’t regret it for a moment.
Special features: 30 minute ‘What is Brazil?’ featurette. Original theatrical trailer.