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Posts Tagged ‘Stardust’

The modern world being what it is, it’s quite hard to completely miss a movie that you genuinely want to see – unless you’re living in rural Sri Lanka or the wilds of central Asia, I suppose. But it can still be done. Towards the end of 2007, posters started going up in the language school in Tokyo where I was working at the time, advertising Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (I’ve no idea why the school was promoting the movie – some sort of targeted Anglophile campaign, I expect), which was due out there early the next year. Due to leave Japan in December, I already knew that, due to the lengthy gap between the European and Japanese release of most non-blockbuster films (over 18 months in the case of Slither), I would already have missed Stardust in the UK. But such is life.

However, I was delighted to see that Stardust was one of the featured in-flight movies on the plane from Narita to Copenhagen. I hate flying long-haul and this promised to take the edge off the eleven-hour journey. Unfortunately, I had reckoned without the idiosyncratic way SAS organise their onboard entertainment. Most airlines have a system where you choose the movie, push a button, and it plays from the start for you. Not our Scandinavian friends: each movie played on a continuous loop on its own channel throughout the flight, and to see the whole thing in the right order you had to be lucky and tune in at just the right moment when the film was starting. Needless to say luck was not with me that day, and not only did I miss seeing Stardust, I missed seeing it about five times. This has rankled with me ever since and I was recently pleased to finally catch up with the damn thing.

This is not so much a fantasy movie as a full-on fairy tale. Charlie Cox plays Tristan, a young man of unusual parentage living in Victorian England. His village adjoins a gateway to another world, but everyone seems to take that in their stride. But when a girl with whom Tristan is infatuated (Sienna Miller) reveals she is planning to marry another, Tristan vows to enter the other world and retrieve a fallen star (which has taken on the form of Claire Danes), in the hope that this will make her choose him instead.

However, the star has fallen as part of the machinations of the dying king of the other world (Peter O’Toole, briefly), who is setting a challenge to determine which of his sons will succeed him – the wise money is on the ruthless Septimus (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong). Whoever finds the star will be the new king. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, the star is also being hunted by a trio of witches led by the vicious Lamia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer – for me this piece of casting had the same whiff of ‘British movie imports slightly past-it American star’ about it as, for example, Andie McDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, simply because Pfeiffer doesn’t work very much these days, but I’m probably being unfair. That’s her choice, after all: she’s certainly perfectly fine here.

Well, would anyone be really shocked to learn that as they get to know each other in the course of their adventures, Tristan and the star find their initial distaste for each other considerably mellowing? Thought not. I found Stardust to be a fun film, and sometimes very funny indeed, but difficult to get a grip on. The combination of classic fairy tale tropes with a modern rom-com structure is just one example of the way in which the film slips and slithers about, never quite being what you expect from one moment to the next.

This is, of course, based on a Neil Gaiman novel (he’s also credited as producer). I am, mutatis mutandis, a fan of Gaiman’s work, and the writers of Stardust (Vaughn and Jane Goldman) have worked hard to ensure it sits easily within the canon. Gaiman’s schtick, to the extent that he has one, is to combine classic story themes and ideas with a modern, often knowing sensibility – taking them seriously but not often sending them up. But while it’s smart and funny, Stardust is really lacking in the darkness it probably needs to convince as a genuine fairy tale – much of the time it’s desperately whimsical, occasionally bordering on the twee. It should really be as annoying as hell and the fact that it isn’t is to Vaughn’s credit.

So it’s not quite a parody – the makers of this film are quite probably sick of having it compared to The Princess Bride, but that’s the closest thing to it. I suppose there are also elements from Terry Gilliam films in there too, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he was involved with the project at one point. If Matthew Vaughn doesn’t quite put his own stamp on it, he still does a good job both as writer and director, for this is a film with a definite vision.

Quite who it’s aimed at, I’m not sure – I suspect young children will find some of the story a bit dull and not get many of the jokes, while adults may find the whole thing a bit too sweet and precious and silly for their tastes. I imagine it will probably do very well with a certain type of teenage girl.

Perhaps I am overstating this, as there are lots of good things here for all kinds of people to enjoy: a satisfying, understatedly clever plot, good art direction, and there are some brilliantly orchestrated sequences – the voodoo swordfight being a particular standout. Most of the acting is, shall we say, not especially nuanced, but none the worse for that, with only a few performances that really make you grimance – Robert de Niro takes an axe to his own reputation once again with a deeply peculiar turn as a gay transvestite pirate (another weird tonal choice), Ricky Gervais is, well, Ricky Gervais, as usual, and, above all…

Well, look, I haven’t seen Claire Danes in a lot of stuff – just Romeo + Juliet and Terminator 3 (and I had to check her filmography for both of them) – but I don’t remember her being too bad in either film. Here, though, she gives a strangely over-animated performance that’s deeply distracting. There’s a moment where she has to deliver a lengthy monologue declaring her undying love to a small furry animal, and it’s one of the oddest pieces of screen acting I can recall – eyes rolling, eyebrows waggling, emphasising the dialogue a bit too much. It’s a bit like watching Al Pacino at his least restrained, or the Haitian puppet theatre.

In the end, though, Stardust was worth the wait. The whole thing is as light and insubstantial as a feather, and probably wholly unbefitting of serious analysis (please disregard previous 1182 words), but it’s fun and clever and only infrequently irritating. I would be interested to see a Neil Gaiman movie that was true to the darker elements that feature in his work, but in terms of handling the notes that come from his upper register, Stardust does a pretty good job.

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