The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Or rather, how Don Quixote nearly killed Terry Gilliam…

Because this is the long-delayed epic comedy the former Python has tried to bring to the screen for nearly 30 years. It is dedicated, quite movingly at the end, to actors Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both of whom briefly took up the reins as Quixote and who are now no longer with us. 

Michael Palin was also in the saddle for a few years but now it arrives, mutated as it must, with Jonathan Pryce in the lead role. “We were waiting 25 years for his eyebrows to get bushy enough,” quips Gilliam, whose film closed the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 and has taken an age – and several legal dodges here and there – to find releases around the world. 

We are one of the last territories to get the movie and in one respect you certainly can’t fault Gililam’s  sense of timing: Pryce is Oscar-nominated right now, for his role in The Two Popes; his sidekick is played by Adam Driver (featured image), also currently Oscar-nominated for Marriage Story.

And, they’re both great in it. Driver shows off a range of comic skills, from slapstick to rubber-faced mugging and witty verbals and Pryce hurls himself at the part to the point you begin to worry about his health.

Gililam’s film is nothing if not wild and wacky, but you probably knew that, it being a Terry Gilliam film. His meta-take on the Cervantes story – he insists you don’t need to read it to get the film – is that Driver is a prima donna commercials director working back in Spain on a bloated ad shoot and who discovers the little village in which he made his first-ever movie, years ago, a passion project about Don Quixote, starring the villagers, including the local shoe maker in the lead.

In the ensuing years, stardom, or acting, has gone to the shoe makers’ head and he (and this is the part played by Pryce) now believes he is the real Don Quixote, chivalrous knight rescuing damsels and slaying giants. 

Also in the ensuing years, the beautiful local barmaid who captured the American film maker’s young heart and played the damsel in his film, has experienced career difficulties  – believing she could have an acting career, she moved to the big city, became a model, then an escort, Now she is in the clutches of a Russian gangster who seems to boss things round these parts of Spain.

it’s a bit of a set-up and all leads to what I must describe as shenanigans in a big costumed ball at a big castle, where masks, and pageants and burnings seem to be taking place. If only someone could come to the rescue…

I must say, the film isn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. It has a manic energy that lasts, even if it lasts rather too long. But there are some good gags – Adam Driver on a donkey is just funny – and plenty of anarchy and scenes that have occasional wafts of the Spanish Inquisition. 

“There’s a plot?” asks the directionless, exasperated Driver, making a point that isn’t lost on the audience. Yet for all the incidental madness of Olga Kurylenko as a seductress and Stellan Skarsgaard as her wealthy investor husband, as well as a slimy agent played by Jason Watkins and a shifty local gypsy, Gilliam never loses sight of where his quest is headed.

If I’m honest, the film could lose 30 minutes without anyone noticing, but Gilliam is such an old-fashioned filmmaker, never in a hurry to cut, keen to dwell on a characterful face or comic detail, that it wouldn’t be the same. 

Mad, untamed, prickly yet surprisingly charming, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is the perfect  reflection of the artist himself and I’m glad he’s got it to the screen after all these years of trying.

I’d say it was worth it, just about.