Osgood Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel, produced by Orion Pictures and Bron Studios, reverses the names in the title of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale. This is an intentional choice. Not only is Gretel arguably the protagonist of every major iteration of this story, but this version makes a concerted effort to address the gender differences between its title characters.
It is an interesting direction to take a familiar fairy tale, one that could bear rich thematic fruit. Unfortunately, Rob Hayes’ script makes statements toward this theme without much elaboration and with only a cursory connection to the fairy tale text. The film begins with Gretel (Sophia Lillis) being sent out with her brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) in search of a job. Her inability to obtain a job has less to do with her abilities and more to do with her not wanting to become sexually subservient to the male head of a household.
This leads to the siblings being exiled from their home, sending them to the forest where they reach, of course, a mysterious house. The witch who owns the house (Alice Krige) will go on to attempt to seduce Gretel by showing her her inner power and convince her that her brother will only grow to hate her.
The subtext of this—the idea Hayes explicitly puts in the mouth of the witch in one scene—is, again, potentially worth exploring. The idea is, more or less, that men have a misplaced belief that women are afraid of the world and thus avoid positions of power. The reality, at least for Gretel, is that she is not afraid of the world but is afraid of her potential within a world whose patriarchal system denies that potential.
One issue with this subtext, in execution, is that it is an argument made by the film’s central villain. It is not as if their is an ambiguity to this within the film—as with the Grimm’s tale, the witch eats children. The other is that Hayes only glances against the ideas. Perhaps there is room for shades of grey in which society creates the “witches” it vilifies and ostracizes, but the reinterpretation of the fairy tale does not fully explore this avenue.
Purely as a fairy tale, though, Gretel & Hansel is quietly compelling, if only to a point. The storytelling leans on voiceover in a surprisingly engaging way, and the quietness that surrounds the rest of the film is effectively uneasy. The careful diction in Hayes’ dialogue is somewhat entrancing, if not more superficial than the air of pedantry would suggest. The whole experience does call to mind the film’s Grimm origins.
And Perkins, with the aid of cinematographer Galo Olivares, craft a visual environment worthy of this namesake. The color scheme, as omnipresent as it is, is intriguing. The film begins with oppressive blues as Gretel and Hansel are sent into the forest, which bloom into deceptively warm yellows as they spend time in the witch’s house. The alternation between the chilling blues and warm yellows plays into the seduction of Gretel by her captor.
Perkins has a knack for crafting a particular mood with establishing shots, which here are often accompanied by visually engaging tracking movement. But the atmospheric horror in Gretel & Hansel is not entirely immersive. It does not fully capture you, binding you to the deliberate movements of the story. It is hard not to call to mind The Witch, a similar film whose atmosphere is unceasingly gripping. Gretel & Hansel may have grand compositions and set design, but the pacing is less nurturing of the constricting unease required to do what The Witch does so deftly. What results is more of a daydream than a nightmare, a film whose spell you fall in and out of in equal measure.
Gretel & Hansel: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)