Review: ‘Gretel & Hansel’ is a feast for the eyes but not terribly filling
In director Osgood Perkins’ gorgeous third horror film, flipping the names in the traditional title to “Gretel & Hansel” is no coincidence, and there’s little question of who is deserving of more prominence. The older sister Gretel (Sophia Lillis) isn’t just given the larger role of the two siblings; instead, this retelling of the fairy tale elevates the concept of female power to one of its primary themes, illuminating the abilities of not only the witch but also a girl on the cusp of womanhood.
Along with writer Rob Hayes, Perkins turns a familiar story that is traditionally told in a few pages into one that stretches to feature length. “Gretel & Hansel” begins with a story within the story, folklore about a girl in a pink cap with supernatural abilities and an evil nature, setting the stage for Gretel’s own narrative that’s grim — and Grimm. However, even those who know the classic by heart will find a few surprises here, particularly around its modern feminist ideas. Unfortunately, its themes are muddled, making the audience wonder whether the male director and screenwriter find female power irretrievably tainted with a slick of evil.
Gretel and her brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey) live in a time and place of pestilence and poverty. Unable to care for them, their mother turns the children out, directing them through the woods to a convent that will hopefully take them in. But Gretel and Hansel take detours that find them seeing silhouettes in the trees, conversing with mushrooms and, finally, happening upon the home of an old woman, Holda (Alice Krige).
Driven by a growling hunger and the sight of a spread on the table, Hansel breaks in but soon discovers that the home’s owner is all too happy for their company. The children gorge themselves, but Gretel begins to question their host’s motives as secrets lurk behind the walls and beneath the floorboards of Holda’s A-frame home, which looks like an Airbnb chosen by a goth influencer.
Between the production design of Jeremy Reed and the cinematography of Galo Olivares, “Gretel &Hansel” is a visual wonder. Perkins’ previous films, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” and “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” were elegantly crafted, but this looks like a work of art. The architecture and set design give the film a German Expressionist bent, with stained glass windows and dark wood that absorbs the candlelight and creates abundant shadows. Each frame is composed so thoughtfully that you’re more likely to lose your breath due to the movie’s beauty rather than its horrors.
As with his first two movies, Perkins is less concerned with terrorizing the audience and instead wants to leave them unsettled as he slowly moves toward the final scene. “Gretel & Hansel” is quietly and perfectly eerie, moving with a languorous grace that might put horror fans of jump scares to sleep. Meanwhile, Hayes’ dialogue perhaps intends to sound like poetry written for children, but its simplicity and the actors’ delivery often make scenes fall flat.
“Gretel & Hansel” is Perkins’ biggest film to date, and it cements a filmmaker in full possession of a visual prowess that few others with far longer filmographies can claim. But while he offers a stunning feast for the eyes, the substance is likely to leave viewers still hungry.
‘Gretel & Hansel’
Rating: PG-13, for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 31 in general release
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