Within the film industry, there are certain films that gain a reputation due to controversy, infamy or some strange tale of behind the scenes. But there are some films that known through film history because of their problems and back luck that plagued them. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was nearly 30 years in the making before it was finally completed and released in January this year (in the UK). Director and writer Terry Gilliam started working on the film back in 1989, secured funds in 1998, started shooting in 2000 but due to a string of unfortunate events, the production was shut down. Fast forward to 2018 where the film made its way to Cannes and a standing ovation. It seemed that Gilliam had finally had his dream realised. Until the reviews were released.
Having gone through a few rewrites before and since the ill-fated production in 2000, the story was settled as this; Toby, a successful commercials director returns to shoot in the same region of Spain a decade since he shot his graduation film featuring all local non-actors, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. After traveling back to the village, he finds that the old man, a cobbler, when they first met, believes that he is the real Don Quixote. From the moment these two are reunited, they end up on a trail of weird and maybe no so wonderful adventures together, Don Quixote believing Toby to be his squire and companion, Sancho, causing further problems for Toby.
It’s unfortunate to immediately feel as if the film has indeed gone through changes, mostly due to the segmented nature of the story and how it plays out. There are too many ‘pocket’ stories with minor characters that either feel too long or pointless and actually provide little impact to the film and story on the whole. The original story had Toby travelling through time and meeting Don Quixote in 16th Century Spain, which would have been more exciting and playing on the ‘man out of time’ genre. Instead, Toby flits between dreams, reality and his own delusions, not mention his own mental breakdown, unless you can explain the ending any differently.
One of the main saviours of the film is Jonathan Pryce. From the moment we meet Javier the cobbler, just like Driver’s Toby, you know he’s something special. He embraces the full force of Quixote and his delusions of grandeur as well as the smaller moments of vulnerability where his facade is broken. Literally filling the armour of other great actors before him. You don’t doubt that Pryce was right for this role. Flitting between terrifying and playful, Pryce and Driver’s chemistry is also fun to watch and their scenes alone are by far the more interesting and entertaining. Driver too can be commended, again taking over from previous actors, playing Toby as someone who is equally lost and needs a purpose. It’s just such a shame this cast wasn’t given the story to go along with their talent.
Terry Gilliam has an eye for the fantastical and fairy tale-like images but likes to twist and turn his stories into something bigger and bolder, not always achieving what you could only guess at what’s in his head. His last few films tried to go above and beyond but fell flat. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feels as if it is clinging to the past, where maybe it should have stayed. The look and feel of the film is mesmerizing but not quite enough to bring back the magic of his earlier films.
Dir: Terry Gilliam
Prd: Mariela Besuievsky, Gerardo Herrero, Amy Gilliam, Grégoire Melin, Sébastien Delloye
Scr: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Adam Driver, Stellan Skarsgard, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro
DoP: Nicola Pecorini
Music: Roque Baños
Country: UK, Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain
Running time: 132 minutes
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available to watch on the BFI Player now.