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Gillian's <i>The Brothers Grimm</i> Turns Classic European Fairy Tale into Dark Comedy

Director Terry Gilliam takes the legends and fairy tales of 19th-century Europe and twists them into a darkly comic adventure co-starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. Alan Silverman has a look at The Brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time, the real Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collected folk stories and legends into their famous volumes of Grimm's Fairy Tales; but in Terry Gilliam's reimagining of their story, fast-talking Will, played by Matt Damon, and bookish Jake, played by Heath Ledger, are con artists.

As the Napoleonic Wars rage, the brothers travel to frightened towns and villages across Germany to vanquish witches and spirits ... specters which The Brothers Grimm themselves have created through stagecraft. They're making a good living at it until, much to their surprise, they come upon a genuine enchanted forest.

Faced with saving their reputations or saving their lives, the Grimms have to devise a way to break a spell that is real, not one of their smoke and mirrors tricks.

Matt Damon has played the unexpected hero before and Heath Ledger has been the brave action star in other films; that's why they say they asked director Gilliam to let them play against type as The Brothers Grimm.

"We actually begged him to switch roles because he originally cast us flip-flopped and we both felt like we'd done that before," says Damon. "So we asked him and it's more challenging and more fun for everybody if they're doing stuff a little differently."

"We were trying to contrast each other a little bit," adds Ledger. "We wanted to present different qualities as brothers, but also have similarities ... like the fact that we wouldn't stand with these brave faces in the face of danger. We would scream like little girls, cower and run away."

Damon says the fantasy of the story and the settings gave them opportunities to play with the characters beyond the usual acting challenges.

"I think every day we would say as we wrapped [finished filming ] 'well, we've never done that before.' From licking toads to being strapped to ladders in an actual burning forest," Damon says. "Every day something new and bizarre would happen."

Or, 'something completely different,' as director Terry Gilliam might have said in Monty Python's Flying Circus, the British TV sketch comedy show that first brought him fame 35 years ago. Gilliam, whose previous film forays into dark fantasy include The Fisher King, Brazil and 12 Monkeys, jumped at the chance to tweak The Brothers Grimm.

"I was completely informed by them. They made me [what I am] ... a product of Grimm's Fairy Tales as a child. We didn't have television," he explains. " I was pre-television and those were the books I was reading and I still see the world through those stories. There are patterns that those stories reveal and I kind of look at the world like that and can't quite get them out of my system. So it's my revenge on The Brothers Grimm for all of those nightmares that they gave me."

However, by setting the story in a war-ravaged countryside with people living in fear of outside attackers, is Gilliam drawing parallels to modern-day events?

"It wasn't intentional, certainly. I think I'm always responding to the world that's really happening around me, so a lot of it becomes rather subconscious," he says. "What I was really thinking at the time was there was Germany at the beginning of the 19th century invaded by Napoleon's armies. The wave of rational thinking - the enlightenment - was pouring into a country which was still living with the old stories and Norse tales. All of that romantic writing and romantic painting was an attempt by the Germans to try to hold on to their identity in defiance of the French 'new' thinking. So that's what was really going on in my mind. If it's happening again today - and it may be - the world just keeps repeating itself."

The Brothers Grimm also features English actress Lena Headey as a resourceful hunter who guides Will and Jake through the enchanted forest; and Italian-born Monica Bellucci plays the wicked queen who cast a spell to give herself eternal life, but forgot to include eternal youth and beauty.

"I think this film is a metaphor that touches anyone who believes in their image and who believes that their image is who they are," she says. "When the image or myth is destroyed, the person gets destroyed along with it. So I think it's the perfect movie for all of us, but especially for actors because we are the first victims of vanity."

The Brothers Grimm was shot on location in the Czech Republic.