What is it that I find appealing about a day dreaming bureaucrat who is seeking escape from the hum-drum office life? I wonder…
Jonathan Pryce is well cast as the endearing everyman Sam Lowry who seeks to put right a bureaucratic error and inadvertently becomes an enemy of the state. Like BLADE RUNNER (1982) from the same period, the vision of the retro-future still looks as fresh and as timeless as when it was first released. The satire is fairly broad, but its targets are still relevant: the debilitating effects of rampant consumerism evident in Jim Broadbent’s hilarious portrayal of Dr Jaffe the plastic surgeon; terrorism has become an ever- present inconvenience; and the main target for Gilliam’s invective is the mammoth organisations grinding down the souls of individuals.
The art direction is magical; every scene is stunningly realised, especially the dream sequences. Some of the criticism at the time suggested that there is a two dimensional quality to the film, referring to Gilliam’s previous incarnation as Monty Python’s animator. Gilliam does have a strong visual sense and juxtaposes imagery and concepts to achieve his effects, but there is more intelligence and sensitivity to BRAZIL than he is given credit for which comes from the performances which are played straight so that overwhelming visuals are believable. The look of the film takes its cue from the visual arts. Gilliam’s previous films, particularly THE JABBERWOCKY (1977) owed a debt to Bruegal and Bosh, and BRAZIL is infused with German Expressionism with a Jacob Epstien twist through the eyes of Edward Hooper. These influences from the world of painting and art are not used in a static manner, like Peter Greenaway uses them for example, but are energised with the exuberance of Fellini, and the darkness of American film-noir, colliding with British naturalistic acting. There is also the element of Monty Python mocking petty officialdom and an under-current of silliness beneath the darkness.
This is Gilliam’s masterpiece.
He has produced good films since, TWELVE MONKEY’S (1995) and the wonderfully eccentric TIDELAND (2005), being personal favourites, but he became embroiled in embittered battles with lawyers, studios, bad luck and half-developed projects following the box-office disappointment of THE ADVENTURES OF BARRON MUNCHUSAN (1988) and he lost his creative momentum as a result of his perceived profligacy in the eyes of the studios. Too many times, it seems to me, he is looking to get one over on the powers that be rather than producing an interesting film. At the time of its release, BRAZIL’s distribution was mired in controversy. Gilliam seized the original print, threatening to burn it if Universal forced through cuts. Focus audiences had been unhappy at the down-beat ending and the darkness pervading the film. He rightly refused to make the film more palatable and famously took out a full page advertisement in the industry magazine Variety with his hostage message. The LA critic’s circle gave him a gong and the film had not even been distributed. There’s a sense in which Gilliam took great relish in the opportunity to cock a snook at the studios and his principled stance has enriched the reputation of the film.
I’ll always have a soft-spot for the charming TIME BANDITS (1981), but BRAZIL remains Gilliam’s greatest achievement.