Stardust

Movie Information

The Story: A young man enters a world of plotting royalty, evil witches and enchantment when he crosses a wall into an alternate reality in his search for a fallen star. The Lowdown: A rich fantasy with delightful comedy and characters. Brilliantly directed by Matthew Vaughn and superbly acted by a stellar cast, this is one not to miss.
Score:

Genre: Fantasy
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Strong
Rated: PG-13

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

21 thoughts on “Stardust

  1. Charles Vess

    What a nicely nuanced review. Its been amazing to see the amount of critical boos and hisses directed at it and DeNiro in particular. I must admit that after reading the script I thought that his role would either be an outright disaster or completely hilarious. Fortunately he was wonderfully funny in this part. It very pleasant to enjoy a film so much that, after all, does have my name on it. I’m the illustrator (Charles Vess) of the original edition of the novel, live on the VA side of your mountains and visit Asheville quite often.

    Enjoy,
    Charles

  2. Ken Hanke

    Thank you. And thank you very much for taking the time to post on here. It’s not every day that we get comments from someone actually associated with a film (and in some cases, that’s probably a good thing). It’s delightful to have your input.

  3. Orbit DVD

    I second Ken’s opinion. This is easily the best movie of the summer, and is already being swept under the rug. Word of mouth is going to eventually make this film a hit on dvd. However, show Hollywood that you want see more movies like this by supporting this film now! Maybe if they make 10 million this weekend they will put some marketing muscle behind it.

    marc

  4. Charles Vess

    It seems that all of America wants to see Rush Hour 3. Go figure!

    I’m hoping that a ground swell of word-of-mouth will drive a lot of warm bodies into the theaters next wekend to see Stardust. If not it’ll be next stop DVD land (admitedly with a lot of very nice extras!). But, I’m afraid the sweeping vistas (Iceland, Scotland, etc) and the lovely production design will not have the same effect on a viewer on a small screen.

    Charles

  5. Ken Hanke

    Well, perhaps not quite all of America (you’ll may notice I stuck my comrade Justin Souther with reviewing RUSH HOUR 3), but far too many, that’s for sure.

    And Charles is quite right about STARDUST losing much on the television screen. Actually, all films lose something on TV, I don’t care how hot your home system is. I recently had the chance to see two Bergman pictures on the screen — 15 feet high and whatever that makes them wide for 1.37:1 ratio. Neither SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, nor PERSONA are what you’d call epic — yet the beauty of both and the power of the latter definitely benefitted from size (and sittng in a dark theater and not having the myriad distractions home viewing is heir to). In the case of something the scope of STARDUST, not seeing it on the Big Screen is unthinkable.

    And Marc is right, too — it’d be terrific if the box-office actually went up this weekend. (And don’t tell me everyone wants to see SUPERBAD!)

  6. #1 – Holy crap, Charles Vess is here!?!

    #2 – Stardust opened the weekend of the Perseid shower, and that is perfect.

    #3 – Claire Danes did not play Claire Danes. Her accent coach was leagues better than Michelle Pfieffer’s. She broke my heart into tiny pieces and put it back together again except for the piece that had gone to Chapel Hill.

    #4 – Stardust is like real, only with faeries, and 7 brothers and 3 witches, and a missing mother and a heartbroken boy on a quest. Stardust is the movie I wrote about in my Women in Media class when I listed the characteristics that were lacking from every Disney movie ever made. Stardust is the movie Terry Gilliam has been trying to make but failing because he focuses on the set and the magic instead of the people. Stardust is NOT like Princess Bride or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Stardust is like Love Actually with swords and only one love plot, but three or four intrigue plots.

  7. Ken Hanke

    You know, comparing it to LOVE ACTUALLY, isn’t that far afield in some respects.

  8. Plackstar

    Ken, it was your write-up that convinced me to see Once and I loved every minute of it. I’m going to trust you on this one as well.

    Thanks everyone! Very insightful overall and you all have me sold. I’ll be seeing it tonight.

  9. Charles Vess

    Its very heartening to hear such enthusiastic responses to the movie. Sometimes I have to wonder if there’s any place for subtlety or whimsicality in our modern world. Not that the movie version of Stardust is totally embued with either of those two traits as it was conceived as a popular entertainent (but the book certainly is!). People seem to respond so readily to 300 or Transformers and, for that matter, Rush Hour 3. I enjoy the ocassional blow-em-up movie as much as the next person but I could never subsist on a steady diet of such.

    Anyways, I thought that I’d let any of you in the Asheville area know that I will be signing at Malapops (along with friend and writter Charles de Lint) on Monday September 10.

    See you there,
    Charles

  10. Ken Hanke

    I think I’ll refrain from commenting on 300 (its defenders were…well, not kind to my review of that one), but I understand very well where you’re coming from. However, take heart, I keep running into people who call STARDUST the best film of the summer, a number of whom have gone to see it two or three times by now. It may not be the big hit of the summer (or any other time), but it definitely has an audience that appreciates it — and, I suspect, an audience that will continue to treasure it. I also believe its reputation will grow with the passage of time and that it will outlast many of the big hits that surround it. As you say, it may not be the last word in whimsy or subtlety, but it has a kind of creativity utterly lacking in most popular entertainment — and it has a heart.

    And I have most definitely marked my calendar for Sept. 10.

  11. SK Rainsford

    Wow! Somebody who really gets STARDUST! You need to post this review on http://www.rottentomatoes.com. You even mention Mark Strong in the movie credits – an overlooked and brilliant performance by Septimus, I say. And David Kelly too. “Treasured” you call it, yes, very good. Many small roles are perfectly-cast and well-played (such as “Billy” the innkeeper) and sparkle throughout this movie. And commentary with Charles Vess! Next thing you know, Neil Gaiman will post …ha. Good job Mr. Hanke.

  12. Orbit DVD

    Ken,

    Do you think this could have been a hit in the spring or fall? It’s the right movie at the wrong time (summer blockbuster season).

    Maybe they can do what they did with THE PEACEFUL WARRIOR… release it about three times!

    marc

  13. Ken Hanke

    Thanks, SK Rainsford. Actually, the review is on Rotten Tomatoes — and it’s worth noting that 74% of the reviews there (100 out of 136) are positive.

    Marc, I honestly think that the movie might have fared better nearer Xmas. People seem more in tune with fantasy at that time of year (I offer no opinion why). Of course, this is pure speculation. It might be as simple as the fact that it would have done better had it not come at the very end of the summer releases when moviegoers are already a little burned out.

    And you know, the last time they released PEACEFUL WARRIOR, it did tremendous business…for the weekend they’d given away tons of free passes.

  14. Charles Vess

    My wife and I went to see Stardust again yesterday. The Abingdon Cinemall has a digital projection system that apparently that is used no where else outside of Ca. And neither of us has been able to actualy watch the film without multiple outside pressures before. This time was just simply for our own pleasure. Still enjoyed it as much as my first viewing and, even now, I’m just noticing little details in the background that bring many smiles to my face. What fun…

    Enjoy,
    Charles

  15. Ken Hanke

    Everyone I know who has seen the film more than once has said that it more than stands up to repeat viewings — and in fact is enhanced by them.

  16. LaurieT

    I did enjoy the movie, however I think it’s release was mixed in with too many other “fantasy” films this summer. At another point in time, it probably would have taken off. I’m glad I saw it in the theater, and think it is worth a second look. I loved the Deniro character. He stole the show in my opinion.

  17. Ken Hanke

    I’ll be interested to see how long Asheville keeps this movie going, since we have a pretty good history of championing films that didn’t do so well in other places — THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, for instance. In the case of LIFE AQUATIC, it was still playing to solid business here after it had dropped to being on less than 50 screens in the entire country. ETERNAL SUNSHINE played so long locally that the film company contacted the theater showing it and wanted to know what was being done to promote it. (Nothing was being done.)

    As for STARDUST, well, Don Mancini told me that he went to see it in LA on Sunday and ended up seeing THE INVASION instead, because STARDUST was sold out.

  18. A. Y. KAY

    I rarely disagree with either Ken or Orbit DVD but I found this movie an unpleasant regurgitation of Tolkien.

    The plot points were tired and seemingly arbitrary (Okay! Now she can destroy the villain with her glow-power!) The cinematography (and sets and costumes and music) was mostly lifted from The Lord of the Rings. The love story and the deconstructions of fairy tales were lifted from Shrek.

    Neil Gaiman is great at starting intriguing stories but lousy at developing them.

    Finally, I beg of all British fantasy writers (and this included Gaiman, Rowling and even Pratt):

    Please, please get over the Middle Ages.

    Enough with the kings, witches, shop boys and helpless maidens.

  19. Ken Hanke

    Well, rather obviously, I came away from the film with a wholly different take. Most oddly, though, I never once thought of LOTR or SHREK during the entire film. Actually, that’s not entirely true, because I did think of SHREK, but only in the sense that STARDUST simply didn’t — and doesn’t — seem to me to be part of that increasingly snarky world of deconstructing fairy tales (something that dates back at least to Stan Freberg comedy recordings and “Fractured Fairytales”)

    I argued many of the same points with someone else and really came to no conclusion, except that it was a case where our perceptions found no common ground. Many of the things being complained about were in fact things I’d liked about the film. I will note that many things may seem fresher to me in a film like this because I don’t read much fantasy (which includes Mr. Tolkien, whose works I’ve never been able to plow through).

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