Sunday, 4 November 2007

review: stardust (matthew vaughn, 2007)

Although, at first, glance, Stardust might seem to fit in perfectly with the post-Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter glut of fantasy films, it is of an entirely different lineage. Whereas the noughties fantasy film is almost invariably a sombre, self-important affair, modelling itself on the epic (and I am not necessarily defining this as a negative point, as some critics have), Stardust more closely resembles the fantasy film zeitgeist of the eighties - half-serious, half-comic, lighter in touch and derived very clearly from the fairy-tale.

The most obvious point of comparison here is The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987), which walked a line between affectionate pastiche of the fairy-tale's familiar genre elements and unabashed adoption of the same tropes it gently mocks - in effect, allowing a cynical modern audience to be affected by these same old conventions through the veil of irony. Stardust achieves the same tightrope-balance, leavening its archetypal, mythical and resolutely unironic quest plot with a nice line of macabre humour, as well as somewhat more than the occasional wink and nudge. In doing so, it provides one of the most entertaining cinema experiences of the year.

It's not a perfect film. Gaiman's story is a complicated one, and in the transfer to the screen, a lot of what made sense on the page as a picaresque sort of narrative, on-screen seems like a random series of events linked by mere coincidence. The breathless rush of on-screen events also does not allow as much time as one wishes for the development of Tristan's (Charlie Cox) and Yvaine's (Claire Danes) relationship - though good performances from the two leads save their characters from falling flat, which would have been fatal to the film. This cramming of the story's emotional elements results in some scenes, notably Yvaine's monologue in the caravan towards the end of the film, falling into sentimentality, missing the innocent yet knowing wonder of Gaiman's novel.

One could also wish for a more distinctive look to the film - Charles Vess' excellent illustrations to the source novel could have provided the inspiration for a much richer visual tapestry to the film, and I can't help but wonder what someone like Terry Gilliam could have made of it. As it is, Matthew Vaughn does a solid enough job, managing the occasional breathtaking scene (thanks also to Ilan Eshkeri's suitably rousing score), but one still wonders what could have been.

These flaws conspire to make the film not quite the magical gem that Gaiman's novel is, but nonetheless, there's no denying its wit, imagination, energy and heart, and the excellent performances both from its leads and from a supporting cast clearly having a great time (especially Michelle Pfeiffer's gloriously evil witch, not to mention Robert De Niro's first memorable performance in at least twenty years).

In the end, it's not a modern fantasy masterpiece on the level I believe Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy of Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) to be. Nor is it quite the lovable fairy-tale that, say, The Neverending Story (1984) is - though I have to ask myself seriously whether I would have felt differently had Stardust also been a part of my childhood, or had I seen The Neverending Story for the first time yesterday. However, Stardust possesses a genuine heartwarming genuineness and love, both for its protagonists and for the enduring power of the fairy-tale, which makes it very easy to overlook its numerous flaws, root for the heroes and boo-hiss the bad guys, and have a huge smile on your face come the inevitable happy ending.

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