Moody it might be, but Gretel & Hansel commits the most egregious sin any piece of entertainment can: For all its lofty arthouse ambition, it’s boring.
Most film critics are reluctant to call a film boring since it’s largely seen as a nebulous, anti-intellectual label unbecoming of a discerning scholar. I, on the other hand, think movies should be called boring much more often, especially if that’s what they are, as is the case with Oz Perkins’ handsome but dramatically inert Gretel & Hansel, an arthouse retelling of the enduring Brothers Grimm fairy-tale.
You know where you stand with the word “boring”; any claims of its ambiguity are farfetched. It means a film is unable to create or sustain narrative momentum. It feels flat and unexciting. Its characters are uninteresting or underdeveloped or actively off-putting. It runs for, let’s say, just shy of ninety minutes but feels twice as long. And so on, and so forth. Gretel & Hansel is boring.
It’s also, to be fair, a few other things, not all of them bad. It has its share of carefully composed images and a pervading sense of eerie occultism that, taken together, make for one or two creepy scenes. That’s creepy rather than scary, you understand, which is another distinction a lot less complicated than people like to pretend. It might unsettle you in the moment, but it won’t keep you up at night since the only lasting element of this production is a pressing sense of misery that you’ll be thankful to escape from and probably have little desire to return to.
Since the title has been rearranged, it’s Gretel (Sophia Lillis) who is asked to shoulder most of the film’s morbid developments. Older than and thus responsible for her grating younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey), she heads out in search of work at the behest of her nutcase mother. One man, ostensibly looking for a housekeeper, wants to know if she’s still a virgin. Unwilling to secure that opportunity, Gretel and her brother are promptly thrown out, where a woodsman (Charles Babalola) saves them from another villain and some psychedelic mushrooms save the audience from visual tedium. The film hews close enough to the original story that you’re unsurprised when the siblings happen upon the cake-scented home of Holda (Alice Krige), a seemingly kindly crone who welcomes the kids inside and starts filling their bellies with questionable foodstuffs seemingly sprung from nowhere.
You know where all this is going – or perhaps you don’t, I suppose, but you won’t be particularly impressed when it gets there either way. Rob Hayes gives his script a coming-of-age girl-power slant that amounts to little beyond some laughably obvious symbolism, and the overall po-faced seriousness of the endeavor puts more strain on Galo Olivares’s hypnotic imagery that it can reasonably take. The absence of gotcha jump-scares is welcome, and Perkins has a good sense of mood, but an intermittent, patronizing voiceover from Gretel reliably punctures it with ham-fisted explanations for things that the production and performances say perfectly well on their own. While Gretel & Hansel will find a cult audience on the strength of its handsome packaging and arthouse sensibilities, it’s a film that, perhaps ironically, gets lost in its own self-importance.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.