So, the big question is… was it worth the wait? Well, the answer is probably yes… and no.
Gilliam’s vision for Quixote is a prismatic film-within-a-film-(within a kind of filmic dreamlike reality). If that seems like it would be hard to follow, it’s not really. Adam Driver is Toby, a hack commercial filmmaker working in Spain on a big-budget version of Miguel de Cervantes epic novel, Don Quixote… and things aren’t going well. His belligerent, racist producer, referred to only as The Boss (Stellan Skarsgård) is on his back with demands from the Russian backers and The Boss’s girlfriend Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko) seems to have eyes for him. Then, one night at dinner, a Gypsy (Óscar Jaenada) approaches Toby with a bootleg DVD. It turns out to be Toby’s own student film, made in a nearby village when he was still young and idealistic. Exasperated by where his career has gone, Toby jumps on a motorcycle and sets out for the village to try and rediscover what he believed about art back then. But what he finds is a strange kind of tourist trap memorialising his student film and, most surprisingly, he discovers that the cobbler he cast as Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) has come to believe that he truly is the fictional character. What’s more, this version of Quixote decides that Toby is his Sancho Panza and drags him off on a quest that shifts deliriously between the student film, the world of Cervantes novel and the real world.
This hyper-stew of mixed up storytelling is what Gilliam excels at and, for much of the movie, he manages to navigate the circuitous route from one world to the other. And, as you might expect, the visuals and production design along the way are wonderful especially in the long, climactic scenes of the film (Gillam’s film, not Toby’s). Kudos to Production Designer Benjamín Fernández and Art Directors Alejandro Fernández and Gabriel Liste.
But, sadly, the story (co-written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni) is often not as compelling as the mise-en-scene and we sometimes end up twiddling our thumbs through the becalmed bits of narrative, waiting for the creative winds to fill the sails again so that the tale may move on. What saves it (mostly) are the outstanding performances, especially from Pryce. It’s almost thirty-five years since Gilliam and Pryce first caught our eye in Gilliam’s exceptional Brazil. Whilst this movie might not achieve the glorious madness of that film, it certainly aspires to it and if it fails, it’s a noble failure. Pryce, on the other hand, excels in the role of Quixote (a far superior effort than his pedestrian role in last year’s The Wife) and Driver’s performance, like Sancho Panza, is all the better for what the Knight of the Woeful Countenance gives him to work with.
I can’t help feeling that the extraordinary baggage that this film carries has an impact on our expectations of it and that that might not be entirely fair. As the unlikely culmination of a thirty year folly, it might not be what we hoped for, but as a film in its own right, it’s bold and ambitious and a feast for the eyes, populated with characters worthy of Fellini, told through marvellous performances by a talented cast and as ambitious in the scale of its storytelling as anything Gilliam has done before. That it falters along the way is disappointing, but it doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable and entertaining couple of hours. And as far as Gilliam’s career as a filmmaker goes? There’s still a promise here, especially with this particular monkey off his back, that he might yet pull off one last masterpiece.