“Stardust”, the new film starring Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro and Peter O’Toole is one of those films with such an intriguing cast, unusual story and strange elements, and a director who seems completely incongruous for the subject matter that you hold out hope that the film will deliver on the promise of something a little wonderful. “Stardust” delivers on that promise.
Tristan (Charlie Cox) is in love with the village beauty, Victoria (Sienna Miller), but she is courting a rich, handsome landowner and considers Tristan more of an annoyance. The young man finally convinces her to go on an evening picnic and they see a shooting star, Tristan promises to retrieve the shooting star for her as a birthday gift the following week. If he delivers, she must marry him instead. She is intrigued and agrees to wait. Tristan sets off and prepares to cross the wall into the next county, but the wall is a barrier into a different world and he soon finds himself in a strange village called Stormhold. Arriving at the site of the falling star, he finds Yvaine (Claire Danes). An old witch, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her two sisters spot the falling star as well; a falling star can help them retain their beauty and youth, prompting Lamia to search Yvaine out. The King of Stormhold (Peter O’Toole) is dying and summons his remaining living sons. The sons are so greedy, they are happy to kill of their brothers to become king. Soon, it is a battle between Septimus (Mark Strong) and Primus (Jason Flemyng). But they are also looking for Yvaine, as she has a piece of jewelry that the king must have in order to rule the land. Along the way, Tristan and Yvaine meet Captain Shakespeare (Robert DeNiro) the captain of a flying ship, with the requisite cast of pirates, who agrees to help them.
Who decided Matthew Vaughn (“LayerCake”) would be a good choice to direct this strange and unusual fantasy film? I would like to congratulate them. Vaughn, who has also been the producer on some Guy Ritchie films, seems a very odd choice for this material, but he proves to be a great choice, taking the various recognizable fantasy elements and combining them together in a strange and unusual way. “Stardust” almost never goes where you might expect, and if it does occasionally go to an expected place, it takes a circuitous route to get there or does something unusual once it is there. The director and screenwriters receive a lot of credit for adapting the original work written by Neil Gaiman and creating something a little bit wonderful, unusual and interesting, providing a surprise for the summer.
The look of the film is also enchanting. It looks like a picture book about faeries and witches come to life. There are a lot of special effects throughout, there would have to be to create this strange world and all of the inhabitants, but they seem to blend better than many recent CGI extravaganzas. The kingdom of Stormhold is the most telling example of the use of special effects, but even this is remarkably well done. Any time a huge structure rises out of a mountain, your mind immediately says special effect. But this structure is interesting and there are elements added to it that make it seem more lifelike. For instance, as the camera pans across the length of the tower, we occasionally see people in the windows.
The use of magic, the site of a falling star, the transformation of beasts are all handled well and serve to further pull us into this mystical world.
I have never been a huge fan of Claire Danes. I just have never seen what the big thrill is about her; yes she’s pretty, but she seems to be fairly one note when she is acting on screen. Make that three note; she has three facial expressions, blank, happy and sad. Nothing in between. The blank facial expression seems to stand in for a lot of other facial expressions. But it just makes her a boring actress. In “Stardust”, this seems to work for her a little. Yvaine is a fallen star, so she is naturally a little awkward and unsure of how to act on Earth and her lack of expression lends itself well to this creature finding her way in a new world.
Charlie Cox is very charming as Tristan, the young man who is guided by his emotions. Throughout the film, his character has the greatest arc and shows the most change. He is very tentative at first, shy around the village beauty, but he soon realizes he has to act for her love, or will lose her forever. This realization causes him to promise her the fallen star and he begins a journey changing him into a dashing hero.
Michelle Pfeiffer is the real standout in the film. She plays Lamia, a 400-year-old witch. When she and her sisters spot the falling star, they hatch a plan. If they can capture the falling star, and sacrifice it, they will become young and beautiful again. Lamia uses the little magic they have left and transforms herself into a young, beautiful woman and sets out to capture Yvaine. Throughout, we get glimpses of the desperation and vanity leading this witch on the hunt.
Robert DeNiro is also good as Captain Shakespeare, the captain of a flying pirate ship. Full of bravado, he takes Yvaine and Tristan on his ship, and tries to help them. He realizes they are kind and feels ready to share a secret with them. This is a nice, funny moment leading to another nice, funny moment with the rest of his crew.
Ricky Gervais has a small role as a con man and he is amusing. But the role is too brief and doesn’t really add to the overall fabric of the film.
Peter O’Toole has a small, but memorable role as the King of Stormhold. As soon as he dies, his sons set about trying to take over the throne. How do they do this? By killing each other off and the King seems to relish in lending a hand. As soon as one dies, they become a ghost and join the rest of the brothers, forming a sort of Greek chorus. Rupert Everett plays one of the sons, who quickly meets his maker, and joins the other dead heirs. Then it becomes a battle between Septimus (Mark Strong) and Primus (Jason Flemyng) as they search out Yvaine, all the while trying to battle each other.
There is, of course, a big battle when Tristan must save Yvaine from Lamia and various other characters. Even during this scene, director Vaughn throws some other characters into the mix and adds some interesting elements. I am making it seem fairly haphazard, but everything connects and works well together.
“Stardust” is a surprising, enchanting film. It is also flopping at the box office. If we don’t go out and support films like this, films with unusual storylines, strange characters and unique elements, we are sending a clear message to the movie studios. Give us more “Rush Hour” sequels. Shame on us.