Gretel & Hansel is the most I’ve been taken by an Osgood Perkins production to date. Are those words meant to be interpreted in dual meanings? I’m no tease. Yes, 2020’s grim retelling of a fabled childhood favorite packs all of Perkins’ pronounced visual assuredness into a sub-ninety-minute serving. No, this does not translate into my full embracing of Perkins’ trademark style over substance approach. There’s more to moviegoing than accomplished folklore cinematography, which I’d argue makes (Gretel &) Hansel not so hot right now. This is a film that’s confessedly beautiful in its thick bewitching vibes, but lacks narrative compulsion as a familiar story draws bouillon-thin.
The ages of Perkins’ title siblings have been stretched, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) somewhere around sixteen years old and her brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) about eight. They’re driven from home by their maddened mother, sent on a path to find lives as foresters. Along their travels, they stumble upon a house that smells of patisserie cakes and fatty bacon – too enticing to ignore. An elderly hostess (Alice Krige) welcomes the children, offers them sanctuary and feasting, but proves to hide ulterior motives. Whether or not Gretel recognizes the signs.
There’s no debate about Perkins’ ability to frame one, ten, frankly countless perfect shots. Cinematographer Galo Olivares traps cloaked silhouettes against Ireland’s haunting treelines and accentuates sinister fairytale production designs though a laser-focused lens. Symmetry aids in heaping on unease whether angles pull tight into Gretel’s face or widescreen an empty white-walled basement. Perkins’ flare for optical storytelling is alive whether pitch-black woods become flooded by nightmarish red color filters or blood-hued smoke billows from a stone chimney. The director’s imagery, for better and worse, does most of the script’s heavy lifting. A magnificent crutch, but a crutch nonetheless.
For a story rooted in glutton-based imprisonment, Gretel & Hansel lacks urgency. Gretel’s thrust into the spotlight, as Rob Hayes’ writing pairs basic coming-of-age structures with satanic awakenings. As the abandoned daughter fights patriarchal misogyny, then a generous yet suspicious woodland hag, Gretel must choose between living her unique life or remaining tethered to brotherly complications. Perkins isn’t satisfied with recreating the witch’s more basic literary motivation of cooking children, but there’s also a lack of emotion as alluded above. Death is on the menu, yet Perkins’ tone never fluctuates from a steady, faint pulse.
What should be fearsomely fantastical is a stodgy after-dark reimagining. Sophia Lillis’ performance offers moderate range while Samuel Leakey’s debut is best described as adequate. Alice Krige manifests in a wrinkled grandmotherly form whose chilling demeanor comes from ominous dialogue or thinly-veiled threats, although her plumpening and predatory tactics only push so far. Circling back to my previous “urgency” comment, hardly does danger emanate from the witch’s woods. No thanks to Robin Coudert’s systematically transfixing yet plodding score, nor Krige’s vaguely audible whispers, nor Perkins’ self-enamor when framing a cabin’s rooftop peak between evergreen branches.
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Execution boasts the filmmaker’s signature silenced atmosphere, but I’d hesitate to use descriptors such as “moody” or “inflicting.” Period dialogue often talks itself into circles, hindering dreadful desires behind the bountiful harvests of culinary extravagance conjured up every morning. A film about child endangerment is blandly seasoned; never savory-sadistic or sweetly demented. Kringe’s devilish temptress deserves more menace and softly-spoken evilness behind crooked smiles, as interactions between Gretel and her manipulative new employer barely rise above a heated simmer. Even the film’s finale, traditional yet original, manages to drain itself of climactic fervor. Ocular seduction that lures you in with five-star appeal, like an Instagramable restaurant dish you order only to realize the picturesque marketing masks rather pedestrian tastes.
In favor of transparency, Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter doesn’t work for me; I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House even less. That’s not to say slow-burn cauldrons of period-based stews aren’t within this critic’s breadth of flavor profiles. The Witch terrorizes, Hagazussa shocks, It Follows haunts; the list goes on. Perkins’ segmented proficiencies are obvious in Gretel & Hansel, which swaths of cerebral, old-world horror lullaby fans will gobble until no morsel remains. You must understand the hushed brand of decorative demonism that Perkins boasts: both a warning and invitation, viewer to viewer.
To a detriment, Gretel & Hansel is a sleepy paganistic bedtime reading that features breathtaking infernal portraits. Much like the myth’s titular children, we’re lured by these scrumptious, sumptuous sights only to be fooled by what lies beneath. In this specific case, it’s Osgood Perkins nobly architecting a narrative about finding self-worth and choosing, not succumbing to, our fates – without the emphasis or assertiveness that such eye-catching exquisiteness deserves. A film that runs through motions before our eyes, rarely incensed by frightful demeanors or languishing mysticism. That’s justifiably the method Perkins intended, but what’s instead delivered is autopiloted mundanity; largely sizzle and little steak.
Gretel & Hansel is a full course meal when it comes to cinematography and production design, but the sleepy, hollow narrative pacing is just too stogy to overcome.