Just as I was about to write this review I received the weekend’s projected box-office report and learned that Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust is slated to come in fourth—behind Rush Hour 3, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Simpsons Movie—with a weekend take of a mere $9 million. As a result, it will be branded a failure by Monday morning (especially with a reported $65-million price tag). In a purely financial sense, that’s hard to deny, but as an artistic achievement, Stardust is anything but a failure. In fact, I will not hesitate in calling it the best film of the summer.
Unfortunately, it’s also a film that has the bad luck to be a fantasy at a time when the market has been flooded with fantasies and the promise of even more fantasies to come. However, Stardust is that rare film that stands head and shoulders above films of its genre. This tale—adapted by Vaughn and cowriter Jane Goldman from a novel by genre expert Neil Gaiman—is the kind of fantasy film that lovers of the genre hope for and almost never get.
It’s the story of a young man, Tristran (Charlie Cox, Casanova), who to prove his love to shallow Victoria (Sienna Miller) crosses a wall into an alternate reality in search of a fallen star, which in the parallel world is a young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). What Tristran doesn’t know is that his father (Brit TV actor Nathaniel Parker) crossed this wall years earlier (played by newcomer Ben Barnes) and had a dalliance with a witch’s slave (Kate Magowan, 24 Hour Party People), the result of which was Tristran himself.
It’s a remarkably layered work with complex characters and a delightfully complex (if not too surprising) plot. And it’s a film that manages to walk a very fine line between the comic and the serious—and it does this without recourse to smug postmodern smart-assery. Stardust has been compared to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987)—even the studio shills pretending to be “just folks” posting barely literate “reviews” on the Internet Movie Database are pushing this idea—but I can scarcely think of a less apt comparison. OK, I know I’m in the minority not caring for The Princess Bride, but regardless of whether or not one likes it, it’s full of jokey postmodern pop-culture references and much of its humor is grounded in seeing fairy-tale characters comport themselves as if they were Borscht Belt comics. Stardust trades in none of that. The humor in it rises in a timeless fashion from the characters and the situations—both of which the film has the good grace to take seriously even while being playful. If I had to compare Stardust to something, it would be Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). And even that doesn’t quite fit, because Stardust is much better structured and does a far better job of creating characters you actually care about. It doesn’t plod along from one set piece to the next like Gilliam’s film—for all the latter’s visual brilliance.
Stardust keeps its focus throughout, even when it may briefly seem that it isn’t. The very setup is a good example. The dying King of Stormhold (Peter O’Toole having a fine time in a role he gets to play lying down), disgusted by the fact that his sons haven’t killed all but one of each other, which seems to be what is expected to transpire since it would make the transition to the next ruler easier, propels a ruby he has drawn the color from into the heavens. The idea is that the son who finds it and restores its color will be the next king. What he doesn’t count on (maybe) is that this hurtling object will knock a star, Yvaine, out of the sky. What he further hasn’t envisioned is that Tristran will set out in search of the fallen star and that the evil witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) will do likewise—although both for very different reasons. Of course, since Yvaine has possession of the jewel that means the king’s battling progeny will be after the star as well.
Aside from the film’s clever plotting where nothing is for nothing, what really causes Stardust to soar is the charisma of its characters and the amazing chemistry of its actors. If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, there’s a good chance that you thought Robert De Niro was on hand for nothing but the paycheck, but that proves to be far from the truth, and is actually the result of the fact that his best footage cannot be shown in the trailer without spoiling one of the story’s surprises. Let’s just say that De Niro’s piratical Captain Shakespeare is a man with a secret—or at least (thanks to shrewdly observant writing) a man who thinks he has a secret. De Niro is not only there for more than a fee, he gives one of his best performances in years and is obviously having a blast in the bargain. But it doesn’t end with De Niro—everyone is as close to perfect as you’re likely to ever see in a star-studded film of this type, even if De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer are the obvious standouts. Cox and Danes make for appealing leads with characterizations we come to genuinely like, while supporting players add just the right touch, especially the inimitable David Kelly (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as the old geezer whose job it is to keep people from crossing the wall into Stormhold.
Director Matthew Vaughn more than fulfills the promise of his first film, Layer Cake (2004), delivering a stunningly beautiful film with just the right touches of wonder, menace and humor. (Do bear in mind that the movie is rated PG-13 and some of the violence is quite grim and the comedy gets pretty dark.) Do not let this movie get away from you. It deserves so much more than it seems likely to get. Rated PG-13 for some fantasy violence and risqué humor.