There have been literally dozens of adaptations of the German fairy tale ‘Hansel and Gretel’ collected and published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. The simple story of a brother & sister in the woods, a gingerbread house, an evil witch, and the childrens’ eventual escape is one known by almost everybody who was ever told stories as a child. The question is, for a story that has been told and retold so many times, how might one breathe new life into another film based on the tale?
One way is to age up the characters, cast an Avenger, and turn Hansel and Gretel into steampunk witch hunters. Another, is to switch the title around and focus this time on Gretel‘s coming of age and possible seduction of the dark side.
Gretel & Hansel is a 2020 dark fantasy horror film directed by Osgood “Oz” Perkins and is written by Rob Hayes. It follows the teenaged Gretel, played by Sophia Lillis, who after refusing a housekeeping position when it becomes clear the master has other interests, is put out in the cold by her uncaring mother along with her younger brother Hansel, played by Samuel Leakey making his film debut. Cold, starving and with little hope left, they eventually come across a house in the woods filled with all the food and warmth they could ask for. The problem is, the old lady who owns the house, played by Alice Krige, is quite obviously hiding her true intentions and may not be as loving and philanthropic as she seems.
The witch sensing a kindred spirit in the teenager, takes on the role of a mentor and guardian for a young girl who has had to protect herself and her little brother with, as we see, no paternal love whatsoever.
As said, this film tries to do something quite different with the usual Hansel and Gretel fairy tale we’ve all heard before, and for that I can commend the filmmakers. What they have created here is an interesting take on both the witch and on Gretel.
For all my praise toward the filmmakers, it must be said that audiences seem to have been put off by the film’s slower pace and somewhat boring script. Now, I largely disagree with that assessment, as personally I found dialogue quite natural for the setting and the film’s dreamlike nature added to an overall feeling of unease throughout this dark fantasy. However, there were times that I felt the use of Gretel‘s voiceover took away from the film more than it added to it. Narration itself wouldn’t have been a bad thing in a fairy-tale movie, as it does fit with the obvious intention of Gretel telling her own story. However, I still felt that this, and the way the film wraps up which seemed to be the reason for it, was a disappointing blemish on an otherwise interesting film.
The dark creepy tone of the movie is emphasised by its cinematography but especially in its art direction, the duties of which here are carried out by Christine McDonagh whose credits since this film’s release have expanded to include The Green Knight and The Northman. The witch’s house, the delicious treasures within, and the horrors beneath, really sell the movie and fans of McDonagh‘s later work are recommended to give this movie a watch.
The performances in Gretel & Hansel are enthralling. Samuel Leakey’s young Hansel is just as innocent, naïve and at times annoying as he needs to be. Much more focus here is on Sophia Lillis as Gretel. She gives an authentic performance, not at all coming off as a contemporary girl in a period setting. We already know from Stephen King’s ‘IT’ Chapters 1 & 2 that Lillis has starred in, that she has it in her to be a modern-day scream queen. There are also times here where the darkness takes over and she becomes legitimately scary. For the most part, due to the script and tone, Lilis gives a subdued performance.
The real standout performance of the film is undoubtedly Alice Krige as Holda, the evil witch. Aided by effective special effects make-up in a role which puts one in mind of Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, she is terrifyingly creepy and at the same time, calm.
While some might find its slower pace and minimalist story dull, I found myself enjoying Gretel & Hansel. Aided by brilliant art direction, dreamy cinematography and great performances from both Alice Krige and Sophia Lillis, Gretel & Hansel is an interesting take on a centuries old tale.