Its 1796 and Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm (you know, the guys who made up all those fairy tales) are travelling the countryside from village to village in French-occupied Germany. The thing is, theyre not exactly spinning yarns in quite the way we expect from these weavers of magic. Instead, Jacob (Matt Damon) and Will (Heath Ledger) are 18th century con artists who trick villagers into believing that they can rid their town of whatever supernatural catastrophe has befallen them
for a price. From director, Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Brazil) we have come to expect the unconventional and his take on the sibling storytellers is certainly nothing like the history books tell us. Woven into this fancifully skewwhiff version of their story are glimpses of the characters and the tales they will one day invent and, to this end, Will, the dreamer of the two, is forever jotting down notes about their escapades.
When our story opens - once upon a time, of course - the boys are about to drive out a terrifying witch from a barn. The old crone is a sight to behold but the brothers modern methods soon see her turned into a pile of writhing serpents. Its all an elaborate artifice devised by them with the help of two sidekicks, but the villagers are happy and the brothers can go on their way, richer for the experience and ready to fleece more gullible customers - until they are found out and captured by an over-the-top torturer called Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) who delivers them to Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce), one of Napoleons officers. It looks like the game is up, but instead of letting Cavaldi have his sadistic way with them, Delatombe despatches the brothers to the village of Marbaden to expose some other charlatans whose creepy hoaxes are frightening the townspeople.
Accompanied by Cavaldi, Jacob and Will arrive in Marbaden, which is under a curse. Many of its little girls have mysteriously disappeared in the woods and, in fact, we witness the fate of two of these young victims - a small girl in a red riding hood and Gretel, sister of Hansel. The boys enlist local huntswoman, Angelika (Lena Headey) to help them navigate the woods and they soon discover that what is going on is not an elaborate sham. You see, this time the magic is real and the forest is home to some fantastical things, including walking trees that devour people, a werewolf and a once-beautiful 500 year-old queen (Monica Bellucci) who lies in a tower where she plots to be the fairest of them all again through the youth of the kidnapped girls. As always, Gilliams film is a visual extravaganza with an endless supply of ideas, some quite dark: when was the last time you saw a horse swallow a boy? Its enough to give the kiddies nightmares. Grim, indeed.