Oz Perkins’ decidedly feminist take on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale is so gorgeous in its imagery that you almost wish it were a silent film. Largely faithful to its source material in spirit but stretching out in interesting new directions, Gretel & Hansel may alienate some horror movie fans with its extremely leisurely pacing and emphasis on atmosphere and mood rather than visceral shocks. But while the film certainly demands patience, it provides ample rewards with its lush stylization.
You may have noticed that the usual title has been reversed. In this retelling, Gretel, played transfixingly by Sophia Lillis (the It films, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase), is a 16-year-old taking care of her 8-year-old brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey). When the siblings head out into the forbidding woods together in search of food, she’s very much in charge, although he’s more than eager to prove his mettle with an ax.
They barely start their journey before running into serious trouble from a malevolent figure. But they’re rescued in the nick of time by a kindly Hunter (Charles Babalola), who, in one of the more audacious conceits of Rob Hayes’ screenplay, promptly disappears for the rest of the running time. The only figure who receives significant screen time, other than the title characters, is Holda (Alice Krige), the witch who invites the two children into her home in the woods for reasons that will be familiar to anyone who has read the dark fairy tale.
The film turns out to be an origin story of sorts, both for Holda, whose younger version (hauntingly played by Jessica De Goux) is seen in the prologue, and for Gretel, who reveals hidden powers by the end that represent a significant departure from traditional versions. (Another plot element I can’t seem to recall from the original tale concerns Hansel and Gretel eating some wild mushrooms in the woods and proceeding to get very, very high.)
Perkins, who seems to be specializing in the horror genre (his previous efforts are the well-regarded The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House), displays the confidence not to rely on cheap jump scares. He invests the spooky proceedings here with uncommon visual elegance; cinematographer Galo Olivares, who collaborated with Alfonso Cuarón on Roma, delivers one striking image after another, placing an emphasis on shadows and candlelight that Kubrick would have admired. And while the prologue introducing Holda is presented in widescreen format, the vast majority of the pic is shot in a boxy proportion that, as in Robert Eggers’ similarly styled The Lighthouse, perfectly suits the material.
The design elements are equally impressive, from Leonie Prendergast’s imaginative costumes to Jeremy Reed’s production design that includes a very different, architecturally modernistic rendition of the witch’s house.
The film includes numerous segments featuring voiceover narration by Gretel, which seems largely unnecessary but perhaps is understandable considering the attention spans of younger viewers (the pic is rated PG-13) who may not appreciate long stretches of silence.
Krige, whose horror-movie credits stretch as far back as 1981’s Ghost Story, is formidably scary and yet also slyly funny as the witch, who, in one of the most memorable moments, slowly pulls a long braid of hair, complete with ribbon, out of her mouth. The extensive makeup with which she’s outfitted makes her look suitably witchlike while also retaining a humanity that makes the character all too relatable.
But it’s Lillis who dominates the proceedings with her powerful screen presence. Although still only in her teens, the talented young actress conveys a maturity and strength that seem to belie her years. You have absolutely no trouble believing that she can put a witch in her place.
Production companies: Automatik, Orion Pictures
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Cast: Sophia Lillis, Sammy Leakey, Alice Krige, Charles Babalola, Jessica De Gouw
Director: Oz Perkins
Screenwriter: Rob Hayes
Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Fred Berger
Executive produces: Sandra Yee Ling, Macdara Kelleher
Director of photography: Galo Olivares
Production designer: Jeremy Reed
Editor: Josh Ethier
Composer: Robin Coudert
Costume designer: Leonie Prendergast
Casting: Claire Curry, Julie Harkin
Rated PG-13, 87 minutes