I honestly didn’t think this movie would ever see the light of day. When it was given an official release date after twenty literal years in limbo, I was almost disappointed, as if Terry Gilliam’s mythical unicorn was by now too conceptual to adopt a definite form. The result is bizarrely delightful, or delightfully bizarre perhaps, a collection of concepts only loosely tied together that escape definition.
On just one level, the movie ostensibly follows Toby (Adam Driver), a visionary director who’s trying to recreate as a proper movie a student film about Don Quixote that he made during a gap year in Spain. It also takes us back to said student film, but then Toby is reunited with the inexplicably British actor who played Don Quixote, who now believes he himself is Don Quixote -we are by now on a third meta-level of fiction I think- and takes Toby as his squire on a new adventure.
Much like Cervantes’ book itself, this movie contains many stand-alone episodes, as the characters encounter various damsels in distress, evil sorcerers, or nefarious knights, with the twist of hopping between levels of narrative every few minutes. Running north of the two hour mark, the film is long, and feels longer still because of its lack of one cohesive story that can pull you along. There was a time when I thought the movie was ending, and it felt about right, but in fact it was just the beginning of a needlessly prolonged third act.
It does take patience to sit through it, but it’s worth it just to see Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce acting together. Driver has shown so much talent in so many wonderful films; there is probably no other actor in his generation that has worked with so many legendary directors. His character here is at times pompous and insufferable (he keeps calling Don Quixote “Don”, as if that was his name; you could track spikes in my blood pressure every time he said that) but he is also endearing, as an obsessed director who is reminded periodically of what real life is like.
Pryce, meanwhile, embodies Don Quixote so much that I wished he was playing him in a straight adaptation; I wanted his movie more than Toby’s. He displays the character’s archetypical traits of delusion, bravery, and grandeur, but above all he imbues Don Quixote with tenderness. That, I think, is key to Cervantes’ work: for all his fantasy and grandstanding, his knight errand is trying to defend the innocent and help those around him. After having made so many of us hate him as the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones, this role made me forgive him. And that alone is no small feat.