I have heard if from the mouth of the man himself, a special request by director Terry Gilliam: “Do not talk about the time taken to get this film made. Do not mention it in your review.”
Ok then, fair enough. Onwards!
Toby (Adam Driver), a director of adverts, is struggling to find meaning and purpose in his latest work for his Boss (Stellan Skarsgård). In a moment of frustration with his star man the Boss picks up a DVD from a street seller and it just so happens to be Toby’s student film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, created and filmed in that very region of Spain. Nostalgic for that time and seeking inspiration, Toby goes off in search of his cast from the past. When he finds things much changed in the small town it is only by chance that he stumbles on the location of the star of his film, his Don Quixote and one time cobbler, Javier (Jonathan Pryce) although Javier’s situation leaves a lot to be desired and it becomes fairly obvious that Javier actually believes that he IS Don Quixote. And with Don Quixote believing Toby is his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, this is where the real adventures begin.
And an adventure we do have! Roughly following the more famous of Don Quixote’s conquests, we are drawn into Javier’s delusion. Toby initially humours Javier by being his squire, albeit reluctantly, but events conspire to leave him no choice in this matter. Toby and Javier, or Sancho and Don Quixote, travel from place to place, “helping” innocent people or just anyone that they come across. The further we go, the more Javier fits into the role of Don Quixote and the more that Toby becomes his squire.
The layers to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote are piled on as we go: from Toby’s advert using Don Quixote, to his original film about Don Quixote, through to Javier’s belief and behaviour and drawing Toby into the fray. It is all leading somewhere, an inevitable location, but where that may be is unimportant for the most part as it is the journey and the people who take centre stage. This sprawling adventure remains good-natured for the most part, veering off here and there, but returning to the honourable and just Don Quixote and his chivalry, trying to put things right wherever he can.
What stands out most are the performances of Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver. Pryce does a great job of living as Don Quixote, bringing his infectious belief into those around him in a good-natured way and always with a sparkle in his eye. The way that Terry Gilliam told the story in his Q&A is that Jonathan Pryce kept at him and at him, informing Terry of his availability for this role. Even after being passed over again and again, it eventually came to him and he certainly makes the most of it, embodying the delusional but honourable knight-errant. Joining him on-screen for the majority of the time is Adam Driver and he has not been any better than he is in this. He gets to show an incredible range: funny, captivating, urgent, emotional and heartfelt, quite often, as with the story, layered upon one another and having to switch between his Toby persona and that of the squire that Javier/Don Quixote believes him to be.
They are both supported well by a multitude of really good actors; principally Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) who simultaneously plays Toby’s love interest and also the object of Don Quixote’s honourable intentions, Dulcinea, with no small amount of energy and composure. Stellan Skarsgård is once again superb, as he is in everything, in this limited role but he gives it his all and Olga Kurylenko is perfectly cast as his adulterous wife with intentions for Toby. But everything comes back to Pryce and Driver, they own every scene they are in and there is a game of one-upmanship going on between the two leads when they are both on-screen and that only adds to the slight surrealism of the film as a whole.
The whole adventure from modern beginnings through to the chaotic, period finale is beautifully captured by Nicola Pecorini (a long time Gilliam collaborator), bringing the feel and time of the story onto the screen really well. At the same time the contemporary elements are there to remind the viewer that this isn’t just a retelling of the old stories of Don Quixote but they are the continuing adventures of Don Quixote, which happens to include some rehashing of his old stories. Contemporary yet historical, old yet new.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is not without its issues. At 133 minutes it is a long film and, married up with the convoluted nature of the story, the multilayered narrative can be confusing. However, if you can get yourself lost in the fantastical adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, in the end it doesn’t actually detract from the enjoyment to be found in the film as the beauty is in the performances and the capturing of this mad world that Don Quixote lives in.