Any girl who reads a fairy tale learns early on to be suspicious of magical gifts—no blessing of beauty gifted to a princess, nor a second sight that elevates a humble village girl, is given freely. There is always an uneven trade, a future obligation, a debt that will eventually be collected. Because it is usually girls who are the recipients, female readers become primed to anticipate the inevitable strings, and to recognize these same patterns in their own lives as they grow into womanhood.
In Gretel & Hansel, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) becomes reader and subject both: She’s the beneficiary of a witch’s whims yet she’s also granted the chance to actually consider the gift offered to her. At a glance, Osgood Perkins’ film is a welcome dark take on the source material. Yet like the witch’s gingerbread house, it suffers in its construction and upon closer inspection.
How interesting that the past seven years has seen two very different adaptations of the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel, with its malleable sibling dynamic and grotesque indulgence in cannibalism. In 2013, it was cool to age them up into steampunk witch hunters played by Jeremy Renner (with magical diabetes, no less) and Gemma Arterton, exploring what happens after they narrowly escaped becoming the witch’s dinner. But at the dawn of a new decade, Perkins instead returns to that escape, and to the question of whether it is even possible to flee when the rest of the world is no less dangerous.
Few fairy tale adaptations have such a keen sense of just how dark the world in which the Grimms recorded their stories was—where it’s not just lurking witches and wolves to fear, but your neighbors and even your parents. Gretel & Hansel is actually set during the time when the story was thought to have originated: the Great Famine of 1315-1317, in which starving adults often abandoned their children as the lesser of two evils.
That sense of hunger permeates this tale in which 16-year-old Gretel and her eight-year-old brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) are turned out into a grimdark world full of perverts and vagrants, in which they try their luck at a number of potential new homes before discovering the magical cottage in the woods.
By setting the film solely from the perspective of the much older sister (compared to past tellings, where the siblings are roughly the same age), it becomes Gretel’s struggle to advance and grow to adulthood, with Hansel a sweet but suffocating weight around her neck. Gretel & Hansel makes a surprisingly convincing case for that old chestnut from 1 Corinthians: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a [wo]man, I put away childish things… if childish things refers to one’s hapless little brother.
Lillis plays this ambivalence well, especially once they become semi-permanent guests of Holda, aka The Witch (Alice Krige). Hansel gorges himself on the never-ending feast while Gretel effortlessly slides into the role of Holda’s apprentice. As she learns the medicinal properties of flowers and roots—and suffers some truly trippy dreams brought on by all that rich food—Gretel approaches the terrible secret of how The Witch earned her relative freedom and independence.
Yet while Gretel’s moral struggle unfurls, it is unclear exactly what Perkins and co-screenwriter Rob Hayes intended for The Witch herself. The sinister details that stand out in the marketing materials—black-tipped fingers, pulling a girl’s pigtail from her mouth like a dangling noodle—seem to set her up as some instantly branded modern horror archetype like The Nun, primed to kick off her own mini-franchise. However, Krige imbues Holda with a bit more detached worldliness than a storybook crone. She may have some eerie, skin-stretching makeup or prosthetics but she is still sharp, even in her self-imposed isolation. One actually wants to spend more time with her, though of course we all know that that’s impossible considering how the story ends.
Audiences will have to settle for the exchanges between Holda and Gretel and their brutal yet relatable commentary on motherhood and womanhood—on the gnawing desire to be alone and responsible only for oneself, and what one would sacrifice for that unsavory need. Frankly, it’s impressive that a mostly male creative team could strike so true to the heart of many a modern woman’s quandary.
Unfortunately, these brief flashes of insight are locked behind the hidden doors of an overly stylized film. While an affinity (or lack thereof) for long, lingering shots and surreal dream sequences is certainly a matter of taste, the emphasis on these striking images saps the film of any momentum. Each subsequent shot feels like another lush dish piled on a table already groaning with too many treats to possibly finish.
It’s all very pretty, but it could have tasted better.
Gretel & Hansel comes to theaters this Friday, Jan. 31.
Natalie Zutter isn’t convinced this version of Gretel entirely nailed it, but welcomes other takers. Talk grimdark fairytales with her on Twitter @nataliezutter.