Review: Gretel & Hansel
Osgood Perkins' Grimm fairy-tale starring Sophia Lillis is a subversive re-telling
Written by Tamsin Cleary
Gretel & Hansel is, unsurprisingly, a re-telling of the Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel but, as with Mirrah Foulkes’ recent Judy and Punch, the title’s name-swap suggests a subversive re-interpretation – a promise the film delivers on with mixed results. Here, breaking with tradition, there’s a significant age-gap between the two siblings, with Gretel (Sophia Lillis, star of It chapters one and two) recast as a headstrong 16-year-old and Hansel (Sam Leakey, making his screen debut) as her wide-eyed 8-year-old dependent. After fleeing their murderous mother, they happen upon a lone cottage in the depths of the dark woods, along with its frail yet distinctly witchy occupier (Alice Krige). But as her host grows more sinister, and her little brother grows plumper, Gretel begins to uncover the grave danger she and Hansel are in.
Gretel & Hansel is the third film from Osgood “Oz” Perkins, one of the most underrated horror film practitioners currently working. His exacting visual approach has something in common with Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar), a far more widely appreciated up-and-coming genre specialist. Like Aster, Perkins’ cinema is one of carefully considered, painterly tableaus; stringently symmetrical compositions that eerily belie the chaos they contain. This aesthetic shone with icy brilliance in The Blackcoat’s Daughter (released as February in the UK), Perkins’ truly outstanding debut feature, and proved to be the saving grace of his muddled sophomore effort, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Unfortunately, in Gretel & Hansel, Perkins’ truly striking imagery readily outstrips Rob Hayes’ screenplay at every turn. Effectively breathing new life into this oft-repeated fable was never going to be easy, but the myriad additions and embellishments Hayes has made to the original tale often feel either superfluous or downright confusing.
The film’s performances, however, do go a fair way in compensating for the narrative shortcomings. While Krige deserves notice for her chilling turn as The Witch, and Leakey makes for an affectingly vulnerable Hansel, the film really belongs to Sophia Lillis as Gretel, who once again shows herself to be a most promising young actor. As the re-mixed title would imply, Gretel is front and centre in this adaptation, and Lillis carries much of the film’s weight with a poise and subtlety beyond her years.
Gretel & Hansel is, in essence, a female coming-of-age story, one where an adolescent girl comes into contact with a terrifying yet intriguing vision of womanhood: the ultimate feminine outsider, a witch. While this formulation is certainly promising (and proved fruitful in Robert Eggers’ The Witch), here the screenplay feels as though it’s straining against its source material, with Gretel’s eventual pull towards witchcraft only serving to muddy the narrative waters. The power of fables often lies in their deceptive simplicity, and although the film sometimes manages effectively to draw meaning from the tale that inspired it, it more often feels like a clumsy, overly assertive imposition of new allegory.
Director: Osgood Perkins
Screenwriter: Rob Hayes
Cast: Sophia Lillis, Sam Leakey, Alice Krige
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Running Time: 87 mins