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The girl who fell to earth
A film review of STARDUST by Camus
 

'We've got Harry Potter and Bond, two of the most successful
franchises of all time and all that money goes to Hollywood.
Yet it's a British idea, British, crew, British cast. That's one
of the reasons I did "Stardust". I was like, "Guys, we can
do this." It's got half British money. I could've done fully
British, but it would've been a little too conservative.'

Matthew Vaughn, director, jacking up the Union Jack

 

And I keep wondering what he meant by "too conservative..." Pandering to commercial interests? Not 'magic' enough? It is not often you come across a 'big' film that is so charming, so knowing and yet so captivatingly innocent. I have not enjoyed myself on the simplest and purest level in front of anything remotely as good as Stardust for quite a while - and it has something in it that's been missing in cinemas for many years - a superb performance by Robert De Niro. Let's be bulls-pizzle-frank here. Bergman this isn't - but if all would-be blockbusters had this sort of flair, this lightness of touch and this wit, then I'd be far happier under the canvas (happy campers, all).

Some witty wag once observed that it takes a very smart actor to play dumb. Taking the essence of this observation I'd come up with something like "It takes a hell of a lot of great work by talented people to produce something that feels bidden by magic." Stardust feels twinkled into existence and that is not to belittle the immense amount of work that went into it - I hope my comment celebrates that work. And it also feels British (half the money certainly won't have been and neither will - probably less than - half the profits) in that wry and accepting way that has become a cliché of our national character.

From the decidedly more 'adult' and graphic Neil Gaiman novel, Stardust guy-ropes a few fantasy ground rules into our heads. One: a magical land exists next to the village of Wall (surrounded by a Hadrian-like guess what?) in the English countryside in the 18th century. Two: stars (yes, celestial ones) are people like us (not gaseous giants, 93 million miles away and beyond) observing our planet and occasionally they land on Earth and are highly prized. Three: Who knew that Michelle Pfeiffer could convincingly play ugly...

In love and juvenile, our hero seeks to prove his love by bringing back a fallen star to his favourite, Victoria. He accepts that the star is, in fact, another beautiful girl and drags her back to Wall - but alas. Princes are after her to claim their right of sovereignty and witches are about, sharpening their knives with which they intend to pluck out the heart of the star to grant them eternal youth. I won't even mention the sky pirate(s) because he and they are joys to be discovered at the cinema.

And it is to the film's credit (all kudos to writers Jane Thompson, Matthew Vaughn and Gaiman's source material) that the movie never insults the viewer and making an almost played for straight fantasy romance (in 2007), this takes balls of steel. Yes, there are many bulging cheeks of tongue but it's not in that awful smug Shrek knowingness, that Dreamworks' animation DNA of smart-arsery that now officially makes me squirm. No. I sat there, thoughts of William Goldman's and Rob Reiner's Princess Bride lay-bying in my brain and only after research did I unearth director Vaughn's vision for the movie: Princess Bride in the overtone of Midnight Run. I think he got that right.

The cast is a dream team, each name ricocheting with bullet-thoughts of "Oh, it's him/her from So and So"! Back after a significant leading lady absence is Michelle Pfeiffer (you know, the beauty from Grease 2 / The Fabulous Baker Boys / What Lies Beneath - pick your era) and she's as glacially gorgeous as ever (it's all in the top lip and I don't know why). Her Witch is wonderfully inhabited by a woman who traded on her beauty for an entire career (how could she not?) and irony aside, now wants that beauty back at the price of a few cut out star hearts (don't worry, it makes perfect sense when you're watching it). Claire Danes (or Juliette as she's known in this household) plays the star Yvaine, as if beautiful women drop out of the sky most evenings - slightly aggrieved she's there and more aggrieved that a moron has just smashed into her. She melts accordingly during the running time. Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle-Gellar, turned down the role to spend time with hubby, Freddie Prince. A career mistake, methinks but then I'm looking at it from the other side. What would I do to avoid spending time with Freddie Prince? I'll leave that unanswered as I have no reason to be mean as far as Stardust is concerned.

The way the characters accept the ground rules of the fantasy so effortlessly promotes us to do the same. The biggest 'arc' (ugh!) is lived through by the hero, Tristan (in the novel 'Tristran' and I wonder what it is about that little 'r' that the movie makers felt it needed excising, a nod to Wagner?) Played wonderfully by Charlie Cox, he goes from romantically obsessed geek (and to be a geek in the 18th century, you really had to work at it) to long haired romantic hero takes some doing over the running time and that he does it with such aplomb is an added bonus. The second Peter O'Toole performance in as many films reviewed one after the other by yours truly, is as cruel and heartless (more irony!) as a leader of Stormhold's magical kingdom has to be. His many greedy sons, all eyes on the prize, are invited to slaughter each other (as the first is - at the hand of the dying king himself). It's our good fortune that the feuding brothers return as ghosts and that a significant number of players in this light epic have been picked from Channel 4's sublime and surreal Green Wing. Sarah Alexander (Tasmin Grieg's doctor room-mate) partners Pfeiffer's witch oddly playing the entire movie in heavy old age make up and yet in the trailer, there she is as gorgeous and (albeit wrongly) dark headed as she appears in real life - whatever that is. In just over a single second. Cutting room decisions are sometimes cruel ones.

Playing off and as far away from his insufferable TV creation, David Brent, that he can manage, Ricky Gervais appears as a fence (Ferdy the Fence actually). Carving himself a Hollywood career niche as the affected Englishman, Gervais does well here as a comic throwaway who's violently despatched. When fellow scribe Slarek conveyed some cynicism about Sky's relentless plugging of his Simpsons' written/co-starred episode, Gervais was defended trenchantly by a friend of mine who's close to the actor/writer ("He's a lovely guy!") and I for one have no reason to doubt my friend's opinion. That's the problem with stars. The bigger they are, the more target to hit but take 'em down the pub and they're probably as normal and self effacing as the rest of us. Unless the rest of us are John Lennon.

But if the central section of the film belongs to anyone, it belongs to a certain Robert De Niro. I can't really impress upon you how glorious his turn as Cap'n Shakespeare is. There are a number of reasons why. Here is a man - a movie God to some of us who still worship at the Travis Bickle altar. He said of his early success (Godfather II, Taxi Driver, Deer Hunter, Raging Bull) that he was fortunate to make good choices. In the middle of his varied and variable career he made choices that strayed so dramatically from the wisdom he showed as a young actor, you almost felt his early stardom was a fluke. "Are you talkin' to me?" Uh, OK. And that was a quote from the hard to watch Rocky and Bulwinkle movie... He obviously thought it was funny as he must have also thought about his post 9/11 guest spot on Saturday Night Live. But mid-career, De Niro disappeared from my own radar because his work was simply workmanlike. It failed to command attention (or I was older and less inclined to sympathise with his different choices). In Stardust, the old bastard shines as brightly as the eponymous heroine. He captures and sells lightning - as you do. For your enjoyment, I will not reveal why De Niro is such a joy in Stardust. Just go and revel in his Obi Wankinobiness.

Ilan Eshkeri deserves a vigorous nod as the talented composer of a score that takes the movie and its characters and milieu seriously. It's a twinkling Albert Hall rousing work that really sweeps you up in the story. In fact I am revelling in it as I type. There are some perhaps unintentional musical quotes from the Hammer inspired re-workings of Wojciech Kilar's score for Coppolla's ünter-masterpiece Dracula, but that aside, it's a joyous paean to fantasy romance.

Stardust has its fairy cake and eats it. Vaughn's epic directorial sweep sidles up to any shot Michael Bay may have storyboarded and because of humour, warmth and wit, makes us care. Vaughn is a father and is well aware (as am I) how priorities change once offspring spring up. Not as dark and practically graphic as the source material, Stardust the movie, pitches itself so perfectly that it's extremely hard for me to dent it - just revel in its joyous entertainment value.

Stardust

UK/USA 2007
130 mins
director
Matthew Vaughn
producers
Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Michael Dreyer
Neil Gaiman
Matthew Vaughn
screenplay
Jane Goldman
Matthew Vaughn
from the novel by
Neil Gaiman
cinematography
Ben Davis
editor
Jon Harris
music
Ilan Eshkeri
production design
Gavin Bocquet
starring
Charlie Cox
Ian McKellen
Peter O'Toole
Robert De Niro
Michelle Pfeiffer
Claire Danes
review posted
29 October 2007