The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - BRIMSTONE | The Movie Waffler


brimstone review
A young woman attempts to evade the unsavoury attentions of her preacher father.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Martin Koolhoven

Starring: Guy Pearce, Kit Harington, Carice van Houten, Dakota Fanning, Emilia Jones

brimstone poster

Thanks to the spaghetti cycle of the 1960s and '70s, Southern Europe, chiefly Italy and Spain, has managed to give the US a run for its money when it comes to the quantity if not quality of westerns. Back in the '60s, German cinema got in on the western act with a series of adaptations of the western novels of writer Karl May, but since then it's a genre that has largely gone neglected by Northern European filmmakers.

This neglect seems counter-intuitive for a couple of reasons. For one, the terrain of Scandinavia and Northern Central Europe could easily double for the likes of Colorado and Utah, in the same way the plains of Spain and Italy once stood in for Arizona and Texas. And when you take into account the crucial role played by immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands in taming the Wild West, it seems like a considerable missed opportunity.

brimstone review

Perhaps that's slowly changing now, as a couple of years ago we got Kristian Levring's under-rated Danish western The Salvation, which boasted a cast comprised mostly of Europeans playing recent arrivals in the US. Scottish musician turned filmmaker John Maclean's outstanding directorial debut Slow West presented a vision of the Old West in which American accents were almost nowhere to be heard, following a pair of protagonists from Ireland and Scotland. Now Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven gives us a very Dutch take on frontier life with the lengthy Brimstone.

Split into four distinct chapters, Brimstone begins by introducing us to Elizabeth (Dakota Fanning), a mute young woman who functions as the midwife in her small town. All is well in her life until a new Dutch Reverend (Guy Pearce) arrives in town. As soon as he takes the pulpit, Elizabeth cowers in fear, and it becomes clear she shares some unsavoury history with the preacher.

Over the course of Brimstone's 148 minutes, we are given piecemeal details which fill in the relationship between Elizabeth, whom we later encounter as an adolescent named Joanna (Emilia Jones), and the mysterious Reverend, whose name we never learn.

brimstone review

is decidedly Dutch in its anti-religious fervour. Like today's Islamist terrorists who mine the Qu'ran for verses that might justify their actions, The Reverend has a Bible quote for every atrocity he commits, even incest. Europeans are often bemused by the conservatism of Americans, but The Reverend is a reminder of how Europe exported most of its fanatics to that young nation, which they saw as 'God's own country'. The Rev has no love for his Dutch homeland, demanding his family and parishioners speak only in English, the language of their new home.

With its four chapter structure, Brimstone plays out like a four episode TV or Netflix mini-series, and that may be the best way to take it in, thanks to its excessive length, which it never really justifies.

Shot across several European countries, Koolhoven's film will have you thoroughly convinced it's taking place in the western states of the US, and the mix of European and American accents adds to the authenticity and contradictory nature of the melting pot of the Old West, a land where churches are outnumbered only by whorehouses.

brimstone review

Not so authentic is Pearce's atrocious Dutch accent. Usually the very definition of a solid performer, the Aussie star really struggles here, and there are times when his Shteve Maclaren meets Goldmember shtick leads to unintentional laughter, and I kept wondering how great Rutger Hauer would have been in this role had it been shot a couple of decades ago. Fanning does an acceptable job with a role that denies her the ability to speak for most of her screen time, but she pales in comparison to Jones as her younger self. The young English actress really is a revelation here, and I suspect we'll be seeing more of her in the future.

Fans of the western genre, feminists and anti-clerics will all find just about enough to keep themselves amused by Brimstone, but much of it feels like a mishandled mis-opportunity. Despite this, future European takes on the Old West are still to be welcomed.

Brimstone is on MUBI UK now.