While he may only be three films into his directorial career thus far, Osgood Perkins has quickly become one of my favorite filmmakers working today, with Gretel & Hansel firmly establishing Perkins as a thoughtful and visionary storyteller who can confidently find new ways to explore timeless stories. A haunting and extraordinarily crafted exploration of the mistreatment of women and our perceptions of evil, if you think you know the journey that Gretel & Hansel will be taking because you know the story of the original fairy tale—think again.
In Gretel & Hansel, we’re introduced to a story about a young girl in a pink bonnet who has special powers, and because of her abilities, those around begin to fear the young girl’s abilities, ultimately exiling her to the depths of the forest to live alone. It’s a familiar tale that has been passed down throughout generations, as even our titular characters Gretel (IT’s Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (newcomer Samuel Leakey) are well aware that they need to beware “the girl in the pink bonnet.” The siblings at the center of this story are incredibly close, which is why when their family begins to fall apart, it’s up to Gretel to care for Hansel, as they set out looking for a new place to call home.
As they make their pilgrimage towards a better life, the hungry and weary travelers come upon a mysterious home that lures them in with sweet smells and an endless supply of food, where a craggily old woman (Alice Krige) offers them a place to stay in exchange for their services around her homestead. But as Gretel and her brother settle in, they share a sense of uneasiness, as they are keenly aware that nothing ever comes without some strings attached. And in this instance, both Gretel and Hansel may end up paying the ultimate price at the hands of their sinister host, whose endless bounty of food isn’t exactly what it seems.
If it sounds like I’m being vague here in my rundown of Gretel & Hansel, that’s completely intentional, as the basic structure of the classic Grimm fairy tale is present in Perkins’ adaptation, but beyond those expected beats lies a story that goes so much deeper and in some surprising directions, so I’m doing my best to retain that experience for other viewers as well. What I can say about Perkins’ take on the fairy tale is that he not only expands upon these well-known characters in some truly remarkable and thought-provoking ways, but he also manages to take the story into a powerful new direction that feels very different, yet still feels like it honors how the original Hansel & Gretel fairy tale plays out, all the same.
While I found the visual elements of Gretel & Hansel to be intoxicating and gorgeously grotesque at times (more on that later), my favorite aspect of this iteration of the story is how Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes have reconstructed the narrative here into an exploration of how society has a tendency to mistreat women, especially young women who are coming into their own. There’s a scene when Gretel goes off to inquire about a local villager needing someone to tend to his housework, and the ghastly gent’s biggest concern is whether or not Gretel’s “womanhood” is still intact. Fun times for our poor heroine.
Something else that Perkins’ latest film explores are the choices we all make during our lifetimes, particularly when we must face the truth about who we are and what we want out of our own existences. Some choose the path of the righteous, and in the case of the Gretel & Hansel’s antagonist, some take a much darker path ruled by destruction and terror. And that’s something we see Lillis’ character conflicted by the more time she spends around her host, who wields her underhanded influence over the young girl with the greatest of ease.
Both Krige and Lillis do incredible work in Gretel & Hansel, and I probably could have watched another 90 minutes of their characters sharing the screen together—that’s how utterly captivating their performances are here. Perkins really allows both women to shine in their respective roles, and as someone who has loved Ghost Story for nearly her entire lifetime, I was downright giddy when I learned of Krige’s involvement in G&H, and it’s yet another iconic performance from the longtime actor, who has given us so many memorable character portrayals over the last four decades.
On a visual level, Gretel & Hansel is an absolute feast for the eyes, with cinematographer Galo Olivares perfectly capturing the sense of danger all around our titular characters, as well as a general sense of danger looming at every turn, through his very capable lens. In terms of the visual design elements in Gretel & Hansel, the results are impeccable, as both Jeremy Reed (production designer) and Christine McDonagh (art direction) have done incredible work here to create a world that feels completely out of time.
As someone who enjoyed I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, and completely adored The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it’s been an absolute joy to watch Osgood Perkins continue to evolve and challenge himself as a storyteller, with Gretel & Hansel being his finest and most ambitious effort to date. A brilliant and powerful exploration of the intersection of real-life and supernatural horrors, Gretel & Hansel is a prime example of how it is still possible to find truly unexpected ways to tell familiar stories.
Movie Score: 4.5/5