Gretel & Hansel is a weirdly mispromoted film. It was released in American theatres at the beginning of 2020 before finally making its way to global audiences – including Australia – in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. It seems such an odd release because it was launched in the USA on more than 3,000 screens; that suggests a commercial film expected to pull a broad multi-quadrant audience. When actually watched, however, it turns out there is very little that is commercial about the film at all. On the review website Rotten Tomatoes, and at the time of writing, audiences are giving it 22 per cent.
The film is set in an unspecified distant past, where siblings Gretel (16, played by It‘s Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (8, played by Samuel Leakey) are forced out of home by their destitute mother. Travelling through dense woodland to find employment with some foresters, they instead stumble upon a black cottage in the middle of nowhere – and an elderly woman keen to embrace them and provide food and shelter. The old woman’s true motives are, of course, obvious to anybody with a passing familiarity with European fairy tales.
Gretel & Hansel is not an inventive drama inspired by the Grimm fairy tale “Hansel & Gretel”; it is “Hansel & Gretel” translated in an uncomplicated fashion to the screen. Events get a small reworking, with one sibling made older and the other younger, but we are still being offered a story about two children lost in a wood, and a witch tempting them with the promise of all they cat eat and shelter from the elements. This is a story with no significant twists or turns, no surprises, and no sudden revelations of any detail that could not be guessed in advance. It may be well-performed – although Sophia Lillis cannot put on an Irish accent – but it is also dramatically inert. It is one of the least suspenseful films that I have ever seen.
Director Osgood Perkins oversees some exceptional work in design and aesthetic. It is imaginatively costumed by Leonie Prendergast. Robin Coudert’s musical score is outstanding. The photography by Galo Oliveries delivers superb levels of atmosphere and unease. The screenplay – by Rob Hayes – is a blank canvas, as good as intended to make the designers do all of the heavy lifting. There are many films out there, over the decades, whose design has vastly out-performed their stories. Gretel & Hansel is a proper work of visual and aural beauty, and can be easily admired for its atmosphere and style. Despite this it is frustratingly hollow; attempts to emotionally invest will inevitably lead to disappointment.
This is where MGM and Orion Pictures (and who knew they were back in action?) have betrayed Gretel & Hansel. It is not supposed to be a commercial production. Quite why MGM and Orion Pictures saw fit to give it a widespread release is a mystery. It is an arthouse picture through and through, intended to be admired and appreciated but not to entertain a mass audience looking for shocks, scares, or scenes of blood and gore. On a simple level of audiovisual art is has some admirable qualities, and will appeal to anybody whose love for cinema focuses on the imagery over the story. That, by the by, is no bad thing. There is always an audience for this kind of thing – it simply is not typically found in the multiplex.
Take Robert Eggers’ artful horror picture The Witch (2016). It has a similar slow burn story, with similarly great production design and a fine sense of unease. It is a much better film than Gretel & Hansel, and was an attention-grabbing hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and it only opened on 2,000 screens. It is no wonder Gretel & Hansel was met with audience disdain – it was bizarrely set up to fail. It is a deeply flawed film, but there is worth here. There is an evocative viewing experience – but one for a much more bespoke audience than its studio would have you think.