The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Stardust

Originally published 8/17/07
Full review behind the jump


: Matthew Vaughn
: Screenplay by Janet Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman
: Matthew Vaughn, Neil Gaiman, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Dreyer
: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro, Mark Strong, Jason Flemying, Sienna Miller, Henry Cavill, Ricky Gervais, Kate Magowan, with a special appearance by Peter O’Toole, and narrated by Sir Ian McKellen

There’s a moment in
Stardust so brief you might well miss it, but so perfect you won’t want to. It comes in the climax, as the boyish hero Tristran (Charlie Cox), whom we’ve watched evolve in the course of a grand adventure from doofus to dashing, looks up to see a chandelier on the ceiling, the support rope in one of his hands, and a sword in the other. Before he takes the inevitable action which is like the ordination ritual for young swashbucklers, he seems to check these three items again with a glint of happy disbelief in his eyes, as if to say: “Wow, you mean I get to do this?

It takes a special kind of actor to pull off a moment like that, because one must be both eager and genuine, committed to the peril of the moment but still vulnerable to an appreciation of, well, just how much silly fun it is to be leaping and fighting and saving endangered damsels. Cox is such an actor, and I suspect with this movie he will etch a permanent place in the romantic speculations of many, many teenage girls.

He is in more ways than usual the face of
Stardust, because like him the movie is pretty and a bit shaggy, clumsy in a few steps but ultimately winning because it is sincere, funny, and good-hearted. On behalf of my generation I’ll state that I still prefer its spiritual cousin The Princess Bride, but this movie is going to have its champions in that debate, and they won’t be empty-handed for worthy arguments.

is one of the first stories to reach the screen from the notoriously difficult-to-adapt Neil Gaiman. One of the finest fantasy authors of this or any generation, his business card might as well read “Have Imagination. Will Travel.” It is co-written and directed by Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn, formerly Guy Ritchie’s producer, became a director quite by accident, and it seems to shield him from any self-seriousness.

As expensive as this movie appears – and as an experienced producer he’ll be able to tell you just how expensive – as a director he seems free to understand that the point of this endeavor is to just keep it moving forward, and along the way have a laugh, better yet a lot of laughs, and smiles, and rollicking thrills. From a construction standpoint it’s refreshingly loose-screwed; and it’s delivered with cheeky relish, plus an eminently British appreciation of understatement and suggestive asides. And from flying pirate ships to a spectral Greek Chorus of maimed ghosts to one of the more inventive sword fights of recent memory (involving a corpse effectively used as a marionette), it is thoroughly a tribute to both the ecstatic and macabre joys of imagining.

In the corner of England in the mid-19th century, the small village of Wall is so-named because of the ancient wall that divides it from the magical Kingdom of Stormhold, a country that looks pieced together from all the greatest landscapes of Europe. The wall is guarded, although not so robustly that a determined person couldn’t cross it. The unstated implication is that most people just aren’t curious enough about magic to try.

But Tristran, rather recklessly, is. A shooting star fell to the ground on the other side of the wall, and he pledges to retrieve it as a gesture of love for the town’s prize bachelorette, the far-above-his-station Victoria (Sienna Miller). His willingness to risk life and limb for a star, she calculates, is potentially enough of an improvement on her snooty fiancée (Henry Cavill) and his pledge to go to Ipswich for an engagement ring. She grants Tristran one week to return with the star and win her hand.

Of course, in the land of Stormhold they understand what stars really are, and so Tristran isn’t the only one in pursuit. The sons of the ailing King (the frail Peter O’Toole, in a brief but rippingly good appearance) are competing to retrieve the star to prove their worthiness to inherit the throne. There used to be seven sons, but since murder and betrayal are the family way their numbers are dwindling with alarming speed. And then there’s the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), an ancient crone who wants to use the star’s heart to sustain her youth and beauty.

Stars have hearts? Yes – they do, because in Stormhold a falling star takes the form of a person, in this case that of Yvaine (Claire Danes), who has a young visage but old wisdom, gained from generations of shining down on the lives of men and women. When she’s joyful she glows, an effect that grows more heartwarming every time it is deployed.

It’s expected that British actors will have the native ability to approach material like this with the proper zest – their tradition of family entertainment teaches them to never look down on a good yarn. What is a pleasant surprise is to see the movie stars from this side of the Atlantic that are equally game. Pfeiffer is a most capable supernatural vamp, and Robert DeNiro comes swooping out of the clouds in his dirigible pirate ship as lightning salesman Captain Shakespeare, a role that gets more thoroughly, addictively ridiculous by the minute.

Like many great fantasy stories, the plot of a young man showing his wits and virtues and discovering his true destiny is but a clothesline on which to hang the author’s colorful and demented whims. With its abundant swinging swords and enchantments, Stardust will be the introduction to many for Neil Gaiman’s expansive creative gifts, and it’s as broadly-appealing as you can get; exciting, funny, and cute as all get-out. Really, put a good blade in this kid Cox’s hands, and it’s just about irresistible.


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