Film Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

This long, long-timing coming passion project from Terry Gilliam is the messiest and most disappointing of all his films, with its behind-the-scenes story now far more interesting than the film itself.

It’s been almost 30 years since former Python Gilliam read Miguel de Cervantes’ novel and wanted to make a straight(ish) adaptation, despite the book supposedly being a ‘cursed’ text that refuses to be filmed, as Orson Welles also found out.

When Gilliam finally got it to the proper production stage in 2000, with Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp (fresh from Terry’s shot at Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas), and having considerably altered the plot from de Cervantes’ vision, the project had to be scrapped again after floods, Rochefort’s serious spine problems and other disasters, although a few striking scenes were shot with Depp and can be glimpsed in the remarkable doco Lost In La Mancha.

Depp held on for a while, and then it might have been Ewan McGregor or Jack O’Connell alongside Robert Duvall, Michael Palin (another Python) or the since-late John Hurt, until Gilliam finally slapped this ramshackle epic together with Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce (star of Terry’s great folly Brazil). It’s worth catching for Gilliam devotees who’ve devotedly clung on since the impossible-to-complete The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus and the grim The Zero Theorem, and the fact that it exists at all proves something. Or other.

Toby Grisoni (Driver) is a snarky ad exec struggling to make a commercial in rural Spain that tackily uses Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and in the process he finds a DVD of a B+W amateur pic he made 10 years before called, of course, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. He’s sort of seduced by Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), the wife of his surly unnamed boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and there are flashbacks to the younger Toby’s production of the short film and some strained themes about anti-gypsy intolerance, all of which add to the confusion.

Our less than amiable protagonist travels to Los Sueños, the town where the original movie was made, hoping to find Anjelica, the girl he once loved, and instead runs into senior cobbler Javier (Pryce), his former Quixote. Naturally Javier’s flipped his wig and now thinks he is Don himself, and although anyone else would run in the opposite direction from such a loon, Toby (as a means to escape the police for various reasons) improbably agrees to set off on delusional adventures with Javier/Don as his hapless Sancho.

There are windmill giants (one voiced by Gilliam), endless fairy-tale fancies that might or might not be happening (yawn…), and a narrative that descends into chaos about halfway in – a Gillam specialty, it must be said. But it looks so flat and drab compared to the mighty sweep of Brazil or even the loopy grandeur of The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. Driver and Pryce are better than the sloppy script, which offers a final act that staggers all over the place and drags everything out to a dispiriting 132 minutes.

Hopelessly overcooked, this unfortunately suggests that Gillam still thinks himself (even at the age of 79 this year) a Don Quixote figure, but he most certainly isn’t. He’s Terry Gilliam, and perhaps that’s no longer a good thing.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (M) is in cinemas now

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