Monty Python star Terry Gilliam’s best film is Brazil. Whilst there is a film version of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four, which is as bleak as anything, we’d like to think Gilliam’s Orwellian tale is the real movie adaptation (a working title was even 1984 ½). It was finally, if subversively, released in 1985, but Gilliam had a nightmare bringing it to the big screen as he battled with the studio to have his vision displayed.
Although inspired by Orwell’s work, Brazil adds in contemporary elements which, obviously, weren’t around in Orwell’s day (1949 saw the publication of the book, shortly before he died of TB aged only 46). Such a development could have been handled badly, but with Gilliam’s trademark visual flair and sense of humour it was (and still is) a complete triumph. It’s Gilliam’s masterpiece.
Okay, the plot revolves around lowly Sam Lowry (Johnathan Pryce), a government employee who is trapped in a tediously bureaucratic job in a radically warped, retro-future version of society. After a fly clogs itself into a printer at his workplace, law enforcement accidentally arrest Archibald Buttle, rather than Archibald Tuttle, on suspicion of terrorist charges.
Whilst the word is government doesn’t make mistakes, Lowry is ordered by his boss Mr. Kurtzmann (Sir Ian Holm) to head out and rectify the issue. On his perilous mission, he comes across Jill Layton (Kim Greist) and falls in love, gets wrapped up in relentless bureaucracy, and fends off the likes of an insane mother, corrupted home service mechanics, and a psychopath of a friend called Jack who tortures people for a living.
The trailer above (put together by clueless studio bods) doesn’t represent the film’s spectacular nature at all well. With Gilliam’s trademark clever directorial style, in this quirky film you’ll find glorious scenes lampooning tedious bureaucracy, along with the terrifying concept of an oppressive totalitarian government. Yet, unlike the Michael Radford adaptation of Orwell’s book (aptly released in 1984), Gilliam layers on the dark as night black humour. The scene below, in particular, is famous for its chaotic pace, which Brazil keeps up for its entirety.
The results can often be quite hilarious, although the underlying terror of the environment is never far away. This is epitomised with Lowry’s friendship with Jack Lint. Played by Michael Palin, who wanted the role as a functioning psychopath as he was fed up of everyone saying how nice he is, Lint is a weird one who tortures information out of supposed enemies of the state, but is also a doting family man (even though he can’t remember his children’s names).
Mindless bureaucracy is also all over the place, with lots of petty conversations about acquiring the right forms (it’s important whether someone has a 27B-6 instead of a 27B-5, for instance), whether something should be dealt with by Information Retrieval or Information Transit.
Whilst studios had pushed for someone such as Tom Cruise for the lead role, Gilliam pissed them off again (more on that in the video below) by choosing the relatively unknown Johnathan Pryce. Casting is an odd one as Robert De Niro, at the height of his career, was offered a small part as the covert Harry Tuttle. Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent also have small, but memorable, appearances.
The visual style is just spectacular, too, with the director’s imaginative reach pushing to impressive heights. Most of his films do deal with, in one way or another, protagonists being liberated by imagination, along with themes of anti-authoritarianism stances, but the bleak ending to Brazil is certainly a chilling reminder of the odious nature of totalitarian ways.
Now 77, Gilliam is showing no signs of slowing down and even has his notoriously delayed Don Quixote project back in development (again, after being stuck in development Hell for over a decade – his first attempt was, at least, turned into a documentary of the notorious filming disaster in the late ’90s: Lost in La Mancha). Jonathan Pryce is in this one, too, and Adam Driver of Star Wars/Kylo Ren fame.
Always ready to try new things, always ready to give studios what-for, and always ready with a witty anecdote, even the accidental publication of his obituary in 2015 by Variety magazine didn’t dent his sense of humour. A one off, you can only look up to the guy, his abilities, and his legacy.