The story involves a low-level bureaucrat's growing desire to escape the hellishly oppressive routine and stability of his station in life, leading to a conclusion so bleak that Universal, who released the film in the US, prepared an alternate version of the film with a more upbeat ending. Thankfully, Gilliam's version was eventually released to much deserving acclaim.
As a satire, it's exceptionally sharp, offering a biting commentary on conformity, commercialism, bureaucracy, state security, and big government, combined with gross-out humor and sight gags -- a Kafkaesque tale imbued with a Pythonesque comic sensibility. What is most impressive is how well Gilliam -- who co-wrote the film with Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard -- maintains the tone while deftly veering between the brilliant moments of comedy and truly terrifying images of torture, terrorism and gore.
The production design by Norman Garwood creates a screen city that is at once claustrophobic and seemingly endless in its sprawl, reminiscent of similarly stylized and expressive cities in films like BLADE RUNNER, METROPOLIS and SUNRISE. Gilliam also creates a disorienting time slip in filling this futuristic world with anachronistically quaint technology, costumes, and moving images (The Marx Bros.' creaky first film, THE COCOANUTS, is seen playing on TV toward the beginning). The atmosphere is enhanced by a soundtrack, scored by Michael Kamen, consisting largely of variations of Ary Barroso's evocative and haunting title song.
Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist give fine performances as the ill-fated protagonists, and are ably supported by such greats as Robert De Niro, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Ian Holm and Jim Broadbent, all of whom create vivid characters that stand out among Gilliam's overwhelming screen world.