Critical Response

If you love fairy tales, you’ll want to see Danishka Esterhazy’s H & G. This meditation on the traditional story of “Hansel and Gretel” departs from the saccharine escapism, arch pastiche, or romantic teensploitation of recent blockbuster fairy tale films. It delivers what versions of international fairy tales at their best offer–something well worth thinking about. In the tradition of excellent films set in everyday North America, like Matthew Bright’s Freeway (1996), Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman (2004), or David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005) (which riff on the equally well-known tale of “Little Red Riding Hood”), H & G provides both an updating of a familiar story and a contemplation of its potential meanings.

At least five English-language campy horror “Hansel and Gretel” movies debuted in 2013. But H & G has more in common with excellent international films using the same tale to explore dangers to children, as well as their remarkable resilience. Abuse and survival similarly focus Christoph Hochhäusler’s German Milchwald (2003) and Pil-Sung Yim’s South Korean Hansel & Gretel (2007). These films, with H & G, demonstrate that the tale is about more than just a gingerbread house, a witch, and a breadcrumb-strewn path–evocative and pervasive though those images are.

As tale scholar Maria Tatar points out, “ill will and evil are…often personified as adult female figures in fairy tales” (Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood, 1992). The best known versions of “Hansel and Gretel” condemn the mother or stepmother and witch for the main characters’ troubles. Yet they show the man who also abandons his children in the woods as blameless. Indeed, the resourceful and clever siblings, gaining an ostensible happy ending in returning to their now-widowed father, actually go back to the same parent who left them in the first place–a more than somewhat ambivalent conclusion! As a feminist folklorist, and also a fairy-tale film fan and scholar, I particularly appreciate that H & G plays with stereotypes by presenting sympathetic mother figures and menacing father figures. But I also value how it explores the possibility that a happy-ever-after may never in fact await protagonists Harley and Gemma–any more than it did their fairy-tale forebears.

I see Red Czarina–Ashley Hirt, Rebecca Gibson, and Danishka Esterhazy–who collaboratively created H & G, in the long tradition of strong women storytellers. Like the triumvirate who told tales to the Grimms–Dorothea Viehmann, Jeanette Hassenpflug, and Dortchen Wild (the source for “Hansel and Gretel”)–the Czarinas work with abundant creative resources but very little money to provide a story that reflects its history and location, but is also ageless.

“Both child actors are stellar …  Gemma in particular is a master of subtle expression and the director ( Danishka Esterhazy) uses her skill to great advantage.”

“One of the things I love most of Esterhazy’s work is that it straddles fantasy and horror in equal parts. It’s not gruesome or outwardly violent but there’s a constant feeling that something sinister is just around the corner and H & G captures that, going from light and playful to dark and dreary in the span of moments.”

“An outstanding performance from the movie’s young star, great cinematography from Andrew Luczenczyn who captures the film with a brightness that contrasts nicely with the film’s dark themes and great direction from Esterhazy whose work continues to explore the darker side of humanity.”

“In a terrifying mix of reality and fantasy, echoes of the original fairytale appear throughout the film, evoking a feeling of déjà vu that is deeply unnerving. Realizing that the strange horror on screen feels oddly familiar, viewers are pushed to reconsider both the original fairytale and their current reality through a new lens. An incredible story of danger, love and survival, H & G promises some thought-provoking — and often chilling — revelations.”

“The two child actors, Breazy Diduck-Wilson (Gemma) and Annika Elyse Irving (Harley) are outstanding. They communicated so much in their eyes and facial expressions and made this modern fairy tale entirely believable. The script is also impressive. One commenter in the Q&A after the film noted how hard it is to have a movie that tells a story through the eyes of a child, especially one where the subject matter is so adult. The writing certainly laid the foundation for that to happen as well as it did.”

Danishka Esterhazy has been making fairy-tale retellings since I can remember being interested in cinema directed by women (like, a decade). Her  SNOW QUEEN and THE RED HOOD are chilling stories set against a modern Canadian backdrop.  Her Gothic drama BLACK FIELD uses the Canadian wilderness in the 19th Century as a window into the violent and harshly beautiful. This time, with H & G, (co-written with Rebecca Gibson) she’s tackled the story of Hansel and Gretel, set in modern times as well.”

” Modern fairy tale fans won’t be disappointed…  The strength of the flick is that Esterhazy doesn’t make many things clear cut. For example our “witch” Brendan is a pretty welcoming fellow, while having an unsettling edge. Porteous plays him with suitable nuance, so that we can with some reserve, empathize with the character. In turn, the natures of Brendan’s crimes, if they are real at all, are left up to us to decide, including the fate of certain characters. It’s a respectful measure that effectively engages the audience. As the viewers, we only know and see the events as the children do, which fills out the world of this story beautifully.

The performances by Annika Elyse Irving and Breazy Diduck-Wilson make, and not break H&G. They feel completely organic, an effect Esterhazy achieved by having them act the scenes with a general layout rather than memorized lines. We can see the two girls’ imaginations improvise and fill in the blanks, making the story more believable and alternatively, chillingly realistic.”

“Tony Porteous puts in a quality performance as a character that you never quite get a proper read on. At times you imagine your nightmares about his potential for wrong could be realized, and other times you just wonder if he’s a lonely hermit looking to have a family around him that isn’t drunk and disorderly. Then again, there is something going on with him and, at one point in the film, you get enough of a glimpse to want the children out of that house as soon as possible, whether they truly understand their potential danger or not.”