Saturday 5 April 2008

Stardust (2007)

Saturday 5 April 2008
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn (based on the novel by Neil Gaiman)

Cast: Charlie Cox (Tristan Thorn), Claire Danes (Yvaine), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare), Mark Strong (Septimus), Nathaniel Parker (Dunstan Thorn), Kate Magowan (Una), Sienna Miller (Victoria Foresster), Peter O'Toole (King Of Stormhold), Jason Flemyng (Primus), Joanna Scanlan (Mormo), Sarah Alexander (Empusa), Rupert Everett (Secundus), Ricky Gervais (Ferdy The Fence), Mark Heap (Tertius), Adam Buxton (Quintus), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Quartus), David Walliams (Sextus), Melanie Hill (Ditchwater Sal), Ben Barnes (Young Dunstan Thorn), David Kelly (Guard), Mark Williams (Billy), Dexter Fletcher (Skinny Pirate), Henry Cavill (Humphrey), Ian McKellen (Narrator) & Jake Curran (Bernard)

In a small English town bordering a magical land, a young man promises his beloved that he'll retrieve a falling star from the realm...

It's "the fairy tale that won't behave", according to the marketing -- and that's an apt description. I wasn’t aware of Neil Gaiman's source novel, and I'm someone who finds The Princess Bride tedious (with a few great moments), so I wasn't sure I'd like Stardust. Thankfully, after a shaky start -- where you sense director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) is getting his bearings -- the film builds a head of steam and evolves into a charming, exciting, well-acted, unpredictable and fun adventure.

The story focuses on Tristan Thorn (newcomer Charlie Cox), a young man living in a stylized English village called Wall that borders a magical realm called Stormhold, accessible over a small brick wall. Tristan is unaware his mother is a Stormhold native, as he was conceived when his father (Nathaniel Parker) sneaked over the wall as a young man for a romp with local slave girl Una (Kate Magowan). These days, Tristan is infatuated with local beauty Victoria (Sienna Miller), and hopes to win her hand in marriage by proving he loves her more than her fiancé. After they both see a shooting star crash into Stormhold, Tristan vows to retrieve the celestial treasure as proof of his devotion.

What Tristan doesn't realize is that the star was actually intentionally knocked from the heavens by the dying King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole), who has decided that whichever of his many sons find the star, they can be king. In a crater, the earthed star has transformed into the ethereal Yvaine (Claire Danes), who soon finds she's everyone's top prize – not least a trio of wrinkly witches, led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who need a star to replenish their fading youth.

Fortunately, Tristan reaches Yvaine first and the engine of the story comes from watching Tristan protect Yvaine from those who want to exploit her, while inevitably falling in love along the way. At heart it's a very simple story, playing with standard fantasy film lore (witches, royalty, magic, pirates), but the script by Jane Goldman (wife of TV/radio personality Jonathan Ross) does an excellent job of keeping things fresh, punchy and fast-moving. The film is populated by a lot of characters, but the story is never lost in the mix and things are quite easy to follow. As I mentioned, it does take about 20 minutes to really settle into this world, but once Stardust hits its stride (shortly after Lamia's first plot to kill Yvaine is thwarted), it really starts soaring.

Charlie Cox impresses as Tristan, bringing a spirited snap to the role; Claire Danes reminds us why we loved her in Romeo + Juliet, imbuing Yvaine with gawky beauty and radiance (literally); Michelle Pfeiffer has obvious fun in a far-too-rare mainstream role, her exquisite beauty and presence eclipsing actors half her age; Mark Strong is rugged and slippery as devious Septimus; Robert De Niro gives a memorable turn as cross-dressing softie pirate Captain Shakespeare; character actress Melanie Hill (Cape Wrath) clearly relishes playing Ditchwater Sal; and the abundance of British actors/comedians all lend fine support – particularly Ricky Gervais, even if he's basically playing Ye Olde David Brent. And I must confess to finding Mark Williams' performance as man-goat Billy more amusing than is perhaps healthy.

Director Matthew Vaughn copes with the scale of this project, gaining confidence with the capricious material after a few slightly confusing transitions and odd vibe in the first 15 minutes, particularly. Stardust is a major step up from his debut with crime thriller Layer Cake, but Vaughan rises to the challenge to deliver an old-fashioned 80s-style family adventure, with modern FX and plenty of British charm and eccentricity. It's worth mentioning that Stardust was only a moderate hit in the US, but became a fixture of the UK box-office for a few months – clearly striking a chord in Gaiman, Goldman and Vaughn's native land.

The special effects are strong and consistent, the production design is excellent, and the use of real locations work well. The film does begin to tire slightly once the "sky pirates" turn up, but the climax is very well handled (I just love the sword fight between Tristan and a limp, reanimated dead man), and it all comes to a very satisfying, neat, fairytale-style ending. I think a special nod should be reserved for the script, which rattles along as a good pace and manages to keep its eye on the ball – even when the cast size reaches bursting point and the intricacies of the plot begin to stack up. It could so easily have lumbered under such strain after about an hour, but it keeps focus and the energy never wanes.

Overall, Stardust was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. I really didn't expect it to be this much fun, or emotionally buoyant, but the quirky foundation of Gaiman's characters/story, the keen script adaptation by Goldman, the constantly-improving direction from Vaughn, and the accumulated efforts of a talented cast, all work together like a well-oiled machine. It's uneven at the start, not quite as funny as it could have been, but as a badly-behaved fairy tale adventure (with a central romance that actually works!) it's up there with the best.

Paramount Pictures
Budget: $89 million
128 minutes

PICTURE: 2.35:1 | SOUND: DTS / Dolby Digital 5.1 / SDDS