WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: In an uneasy totalitarian Britain, Sam Lowry keeps his head down working in the gargantuan Ministry of Information, quietly dreaming that he’s a winged warrior rescuing a fair-haired damsel in distress. When an administrative error throws a real-life woman in Sam’s way, he’s desperate to find out who she is; but his hunt has devastating consequences.
‘Somewhere in the 20th Century’, Britain is under the thumb of a brutal, autocratic regime, diverting huge amounts of money to the Ministry of Information’s enormous propaganda and administration machine, funded by charging criminals for their own trials. When a fly causes a Mr Buttle to be arrested in place of renegade engineer Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), the problem lands on the desk of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a Ministry worker keeping his head down and trying to avoid having promotion foisted on him by his well-connected and ever-more-glamorous mother (Katherine Helmond). Mrs Lowry’s friend Alma Terrain (Barbara Hicks) also tries to foist her daughter Shirley (Kathryn Pogson) on Sam, but he has much grander dreams – literally. In his fantasies, he’s a winged hero, soaring above the clouds to the strains of the uplifting song Brazil. When he visits a distraught Mrs Buttle and discovers that her neighbour Jill Layton (Kim Greist) is the girl of his dreams, he’s desperate to find her; but she’s elusive, abrasive, and possibly mixed up in terrorism herself. To find out, he takes the promotion to Information Retrieval where – in theory – he can gain access to Jill’s classified records. He finally gets close to her, but his interest in Hill, and his repeated meetings with the ’terrorist’ Tuttle, bring him ever closer to danger – even if he supposedly has friends such as enigmatic information retriever Jack (Michael Palin) on his side.
To be completely honest, Brazil is a bit of a mess. However much it might be by design, intentionally (?) reflecting the dystopian chaos of a Britain distorted, 1984-like, into a paranoid, dysfunctional state, the film is not the tidiest of beasts. It ambles and rambles between the murky ’real’ of Sam’s existence and the colourful surreal of his fantasies, where the model work and forced perspective shots wobble between looking naïve and simply cheap. Despite often being very funny, Tom Stoppard’s sharp writing (with Charles McKeown) off-setting Gilliam’s insistent Monty Python influences, it does beat around the bush whilst telling its fairly simple tale of cherchez la femme, even though there are decent action sequences at regular intervals. Some of the politics are a bit simplistic – yes, yes, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter – and some ideas aren’t expertly realised (the bombings don’t look quite right, and jokes such as the processed food don’t hit the mark).
But what a beautiful mess. From the opening aerial shots, there’s a boldness in the sheer lunacy of Brazil’s visual style that sweeps you up and carries you with it. The technological ineptitude of state-engineered ’progress’ is a joy to behold, enhancing both Sam’s eventually hellish apartment and his extraordinary offices. The vision pervades throughout the film, too, which is more than you can say for the similarly-themed V for Vendetta. And for all that the film closely apes 1984, it gives the story a number of comic, sinister and noir twists to fashion a unique experience. A remarkably fresh one at that: ‘We’re all in it together’, a slogan whose sarcasm is reflected in the grotty existence of the working class and the (albeit illusory) decadence of Sam’s mother, is eerily close to the British Conservative party’s slogan during the 2010 election.
As for the stunning torture chamber, and what follows: well, I won’t spoil it for newcomers, but the invention of the climactic sequence, with the infiltration of dreams into Sam’s life (and vice versa) informs our appreciation of more sophisticated/better-funded fare such as Chris Nolan’s Inception. It also provides some truly unforgettable images, which are arresting and loaded with significance. Taken at its highest, Mrs Lowry’s cosmetic surgery and the disastrous work on Alma provide a cruel visual metaphor for a society that maintains a civilised surface, but is completely rotten on the inside (the funeral scene is profoundly striking). Some may find the symbolism blatant, others confusing and opaque; but it all gives Brazil an uncomfortable, oppressive and gripping atmosphere. The final twist is heartbreaking and bittersweet.
Brazil is also lucky to have a cast that almost uniformly fits their roles to perfection. Pryce brings off a wonderful combination of awkwardness and heroism, while Helmond is terrific as his domineering mother. Palin – such an affable presence in his previous work – is brilliant as Jack, the smiling monster, while De Niro (who went for Jack, but stayed for what he could get) is a charming, if brief, surprise. Greist is perhaps not quite so compelling, but is effective enough contrasting the helpless maiden of Sam’s dreams against the butch trucker in real life. The bonus comes in the contributions made by those I haven’t yet mentioned: Ian Holm as Mr Kurtzmann, Sam’s ineffectual boss; Peter Vaughan as the chummy minister; Jim Broadbent as Ida Lowry’s eccentric surgeon; and Bob Hoskins as the jobsworth engineer who makes Sam’s life hell, before coming to a sticky end. The broad spectrum of vivid supporting characters adds to the feeling of a fully-realised society, helping this film to tick and overcome its slower, less successful moments.
I couldn’t tell you anything about the so-called ’Love Conquers All’ version of Brazil, but I can only assume it ruins the glorious pessimism of Gilliam’s extraordinary tale. Avoid that, if you can, and catch the movie in all its mad, imperfect glory. Gilliam has made much more accomplished films, not least Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Twelve Monkeys, but for me nothing in those movies has the impact of the best of Brazil. Oh, and did I mention that the signature tune is as catchy as hell?