Friday, October 05, 2007

Film Review: Stardust

In the town of Wall, which borders the fantasy realm of Stormhold, young Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) is trying in vain to woo Victoria (Sienna Miller), the love of his life. Elsewhere, the king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole), seeing that his sons have failed to kill each other off to determine succession, as is the family tradition, sets his remaining progeny the task of retrieving the family necklace to decide who shall be king. The necklace attaches itself to a star, dragging it down to Earth, where Tristan sees it and vows to Victoria that he will bring her the star if she will marry him. True love never runs smoothly, though, as upon impact the star transformed into a girl named Yvain (Claire Danes), and a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) is also out to get her.

This may all sound like a load of dull, fantasy nonsense, and it would be if Stardust took itself even the slightest bit seriously. Based on Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name, which is an homage to pre-Tolkien fantasy and fairytales, the film version takes the impish sense of humour present in Gaiman's book and transfers it beautifully to the screen, serving up a film which is not only thrilling, but also very funny.

Now, any film that attempts to meld fairytales and comedy, and particularly any that throw a fair bit of swashbuckling into the mix, is bound to draw comparisons to Rob Reiner's masterpiece, The Princess Bride. Usually, I'd try to avoid such a comparison since its incredibly unfair to compare any film to one so beloved, but since director Matthew Vaughn has gone out of his way to emphasise the influence of that film on his in every interview he has given for the film, as well as casting someone who so closely resembles Cery Elwes in one of the roles that I'm not entirely certain they haven't just digitally added in old Princess Bride footage, it seems that it's unavoidable. Much like The Princess Bride, Vaughn sets out from the beginning to ground the comedy within the parameters of a specific cinematic style; whilst The Princess Bride took its cue from Errol Flynn, Stardust takes its cue from Peter Jackson. However, rather than attempt to parody Lord of the Rings or its imitators, Vaughn merely uses the techniques and visuals of those films to stage his own story, even in going so far as to have Sir Ian McKellan narrate the opening and closing sequences of the film. In this regard, Vaughn is very successful: the film looks spectacular. A few bits of dodgy CGI here and there aside, the film has a grandeur that belies its modest budget, with beautiful landscapes and, in Stormhold, a splendidly realised magical world.

The cast are also up for a bit of fun, all of whom play the roles straight but with a slyness to them that adds to the humour of the film. Michelle Pfeiffer is superb as the witch, playing her with just the right balance of maliciousness and real human concerns, particularly vanity. That she can go from charming to vicious and genuinely menacing in an instance is a real testament to her abilities, and she makes a fine villain. Charlie Cox and Claire Danes are also very good as the main protagonists, making an adorable pair who the audience can really care for and the relationship that develops between them over the course of the film is very sweet and grows organically.

The undisputed star of the film, though, is Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, a sky pirate who helps Tristan and Yvain. Shakespeare is a man of two contrasting sides; for the public, he is a vicious killer with a reputation as one of the toughest men on, or rather above, Earth. In private, he is a sensitive sole who has to put on the facade of a murderer to make it in his line of work. De Niro is a comic genius in the film, with the unrestrained energy of Robin Williams before he became an unfunny wreck, and his scenes are an absolute joy. The film pushes it a little bit too far, but not so much as to completely ruin the character.

The only real weak spot, in a film that boasts fine cameos from the likes of Adam Buxton, Mark Williams, Mark Heap and David Walliams in supporting roles, is Ricky Gervais, who does a rather lazy rendition of his usual schtick as a trader named Ferdie the Fence and whilst he is funny, he's not particularly good. Especially since he has to play his scenes opposite De Niro and Pfeiffer, the strongest performers in the whole film, making him seem rather lost.

As with any good adaptation, Stardust remains largely faithful to the original whilst also taking a fair few liberties. In this case, the liberties manifest themselves in the creation of Shakespeare and Ferdie, as well as beefing up the ending of the film. I personally think this is a great boon to the film since, as much as I love his work, Gaiman's books tend to have anti-climactic endings and the new one is huge, thrilling and unpredictable.

The unpredictability of Stardust as a whole is perhaps its greatest asset. A lot of reviews have criticised it for not knowing what it wants to be, a comedy, a fantasy, a scary film etc, but i would argue that it knows precisely what it wants to be; a kids film that the film-makers would have wanted to see as children. That's why, for all its jokes and thrills, it also features no less than seven eviscerations, of both humans and animals, a major plot point revolving around the removal of a character's heart, and an underlying sexual tension to it all. Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman know that kids want to be scared when they see films, and it is the mix of whimsy and sheer terror common to all great fairytales that runs throughout Stardust, raising the film as a whole up a notch in terms of quality.

However, for all its charms, Stardust's first half an hour is a real drag. As the brief plot summary above might indicate, there's an awful lot to explain and three separate plot strands to set in motion, and the need to get this out of the way unbalances the pace of the film. Thankfully, things pick up, and the rest of the film is terrific fun and has a real sense of wonder about it all.

It's not quite The Princess Bride, but Stardust is a fine film. Matthew Vaughn and his cast have created a story that is epic, sarcastic, fantastical and thrilling. Most importantly, they've made a film that is just so enjoyable to watch. It may not be great, but it is great fun.