GRETEL AND HANSEL movie poster | ©2020 Orion Pictures

GRETEL AND HANSEL movie poster | ©2020 Orion Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Samuel Leakey, Jessica De Gouw, Charles Babalola
Writer: Rob Hayes
Director: Osgood Perkins
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Release Date: January 31, 2020

GRETEL & HANSEL is Exhibit A for the argument that it’s possible to make an excellent movie from source material that everybody already knows, so long as the filmmakers have a strong point of view and actually care what they’re doing.

Yes, director Osgood Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes are bringing us another version of the Hansel & Gretel story. GRETEL & HANSEL actually feels somewhat spiritually akin to filmmaker Robert Eggers’s 2015 THE WITCH. Both movies are heavily atmospheric, both have muted palettes with well-chosen pops of color, and both explore the notion that witchcraft can be an attractive, if homicidal, alternative to starvation, boredom, and convention.

In GRETEL & HANSEL, it’s not quite clear when or where we are, but it’s still a time of nobles and peasants, with mysterious vast forests, famine, plague, and cautionary tales. Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is both protagonist and narrator. She is particularly fond of a story about a beautiful little girl with a pink cap, where the moral is not to trust gifts that seem to come for free. Gretel is the primary caretaker of her little brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey), as their mother is rapidly losing her sanity.

When remaining at home becomes too dangerous, Gretel takes Hansel and sets off through the woods. Although it’s suggested they’ll find safety with foresters on the other side of the trees, Gretel and Hansel veer off the path when they come upon a cottage. This is occupied by an apparently kindly old woman, Holda (Alice Krige), who has plenty of food, despite the scarcity elsewhere. Holda also has a lot of wisdom to impart, particularly to Gretel.

What’s especially pleasing about GRETEL & HANSEL is that, unlike a lot of other quiet, moody supernatural pieces, it’s not slow, it’s easy to follow, and it’s true to its own internal logic. The outside world is so menacing – their own mother is terrifying – that we don’t question why Gretel and Hansel accept Holda’s hospitality. Gretel’s suspicions are understandable, but likewise she is not made to seem foolish or blind by staying. In fact, one of the elements here is unique to GRETEL & HANSEL, deepening the main character considerably and binding her character growth to the story.

The imagery is mostly suggestive rather than graphic. It’s also darkly lovely, in the way of fairytale book illustrations. Director Perkins makes uncommonly good use of shapes, such as the eerie silhouette of the child from Gretel’s story, and the odd construction of Holda’s house and its rooms.

GRETEL & HANSEL was shot in Ireland, but it’s mostly gray and brown rather than green, a tangle of endless branches in autumn. It has a carefully constructed, effective feel of Samhain and restless spirits.

Lillis has the requisite strength and solemnity required for this Gretel, although since everyone else has an English or Irish accent, her natural American speaking voice is ever-so-slightly distracting. Krige is perfect, and Leakey has a convincing mixture of specific stubbornness and timeless boyishness.

There are moments in Gretel’s narration when it feels as though the filmmakers where they know where they want to go, but can’t quite get there. One big question: Holda has a number of tattoos, and there are symbols on her front door and within her home. Among both the tattoos and symbols is a Star of David. One would ask of the filmmaker if this is an intentionally anti-Semitic statement, or just an ignorant conflation of Judaism with great evil. Either way, it doesn’t sit well.

Otherwise, GRETEL & HANSEL is a powerful, dreamy work of folk horror that draws us in and holds us in its spell for the duration.

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