Terry Gilliam has finished The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Weirder still, we can actually see it.
Anyone who’s followed Gilliam’s career over the last 30 years knows that this hasn’t been an easy road. Almost everything the poor guy ever made ran into production problems (read the excellent un-making-of books behind the likes of Brazil, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, and The Brothers Grimm), but nothing has sucked more time, money and sanity out of the director than his lifelong quest to make Quixote.
First attempted back in 1989, the film has started and stopped production at least a dozen times over the past three decades. Everyone from Sean Connery and Danny DeVito to Robin Williams and Johnny Depp has spent time on the cast list – and the last time Gilliam tried it (1998), the film was half complete before illness, noisy fighter jets, random flash floods and greedy lawyers shut the whole thing down before he could finish. You could make a whole film about how hard it’s been for Gilliam to shoot Quixote, and someone did – the brilliant 2002 documentary, Lost In La Mancha.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Gilliam was back behind the camera, somehow finding enough willpower (or anger) to have another crack at it. Obviously, things went wrong again. Locked in an ugly rights war with bullish producer Paulo Branco, the Monty Python collaborator was forced to shelve the film and pay a ransom out of his own salary to get it back.
Three years after Gilliam called cut, and 30 years after he started trying to make it, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally out. Was it worth all the time, money, sleepless nights, vicious court fights and high-blood pressure? Definitely. (Although Gilliam might not agree…)
For anyone who hasn’t read the book, Don Quixote is the story of an elderly Spanish peasant who convinces himself that he’s a noble knight in the middle of a fairytale adventure. Putting a saucepan on his head for a helmet, and roping in his bored neighbour, Sancho Panza, to carry his luggage, Quixote sets off to fight giants (windmills) and save princesses (local farm girls).
Gilliam’s first attempt at adapting the book saw him telling the story straight, but the film evolved over the years to become a time travelling epic about a modern day man who wakes up in the middle of medieval Spain. Understandably, Gilliam is now a wee bit bitter about the whole moviemaking experience, so the new version moves the action to somewhere he knows better than anyone else: a failing film set, complete with evil moneymen and scheming producers threatening to tear the whole thing apart.
Toby (Adam Driver) is a hotshot director trying to make a blockbuster version of Quixote on a tight budget. Struggling for inspiration, he heads out into the Spanish countryside and meets the same old guy (Jonathan Pryce) he once cast as Quixote in his arty student film. Things get weird when he realises the old man now believes himself to be the real Quixote, and Toby spends the rest of the film slipping in and out of dreams and reality as a stand-in Sancho Panza – following Don on his odd sort-of-real adventures. It’s all very meta, and all very Gilliam, as the film skips through memory and time to tell the story of Don Quixote the character, Don Quixote the man, Toby the director and, by default, Terry Gilliam himself.
Moving wildly through ruined opera sets and baroque fever dreams, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a disorientating experience. It’s all a bit of a beautiful mess. And yet…
Whilst it feels very much like this is now the only version of the story Gilliam could make – raging at the film industry, overflowing with energy, desperate to cram in as many ideas as possible before someone takes his camera away again – it also feels like the best version of Quixote we were ever going to get.
Johnny Depp might have made a great whimsical Sancho tripping through Gilliam’s head in 1998, but Adam Driver’s ungrounded electricity lends itself even more perfectly to the role. Sure, Jean Rochefort looked like the perfect Quixote, but Jonathan Pryce plays him with such subtle humanity that’s hard to imagine anyone else under the saucepan. Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko and more rally round to fill the supporting roles, but it’s really only ever Gilliam’s own creative vision that takes the spotlight.
A flurry of grand art direction and offbeat theatricality that towers above all of his recent films, Gilliam’s uncompromised Quixote is the best thing he’s done since Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Chaotic, muddled and unpolished as it is, the film stands tall as Gilliam’s late-career landmark – mixing all of his influences, frustrations, passions and problems in one ballsy last stand for self-expression.
It might be an odd watch for anyone who hasn’t followed the backstory (or for anyone who like their films without metafictional plot-jumps, sly digs at Portuguese film producers, or scenes where Adam Driver French-kisses a sheep), but for Gilliam fans who have been waiting 30 years to see him do whatever the hell he wants with Don Quixote, it’s a rare, wonderful treat that very nearly never happened.
Buy a ticket. If ever a film needed an audience, it’s this one.
- Director: Terry Gilliam
- Starring: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård
- Release date: 31 January 2020