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Stardust

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/10/07 00:00:00

"The best fantasy movie in years."
5 stars (Awesome)

And now the purple dust of twilight time steals across the meadows of my heart. Now the little stars, the little stars pine, always reminding me that we're apart.

- Hoagy Carmichael, “Stardust”

How absolutely wonderful, this grand fairy tale of witches and thieves, of princes and pirates, of maidens fair and young hearts true. “Stardust” is the fable of a star who fell from the heavens and the young man who captured her. It is a film of awe and beauty, a flight of fancy bursting with the great marvels of the imagination.

How surprising, then, to learn that the film was directed and co-scripted by Matthew Vaughn, who made the brutal “Layer Cake” and produced Guy Ritchie’s early, gritty work. There are dark, grown-up sensibilities at play in “Stardust,” to be sure, but at its heart the film is gentle and pure. With “Layer Cake,” Vaughn proved himself a smart, talented filmmaker; with “Stardust,” he uses that talent to take us somewhere entirely new.

The film is the third variation of the story from acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman; it began as a four-part comic book, then evolved into a novel. There have been changes, of course, but the spirit of Gaiman’s vision lives on here, with its grand imagination combining classic fairy tale wonder with a winking post-modern sensibility.

Young Tristan (Charlie Cox) hails from the quaint village of Wall, named after the ancient bricks that surround it, sealing it off from the dangerous realms beyond. Tristan pines for the lovely but shallow Victoria (Sienna Miller), and one night she promises to marry him if only he finds and captures a fallen star. And so Tristan escapes Wall to begin his epic quest, unaware that the fallen star he seeks comes in the form of Claire Danes.

This alone is enough for any fantasy yarn; the idea of a lovely lass as a mystical being from the heavens is bursting with glorious delight. And yet this is only the beginning. Surrounding Tristan’s adventures are many wild, wonderful storylines that collide throughout, such as:

- In the magical kingdom of Stormhold, a petty king (Peter O’Toole) lays dying, his power-hungry sons eager to kill each other off to win the throne. The dead princes live on as ghosts, and they will only move on in death once someone finds a certain precious stone and claims the kingdom for himself. The stone, of course, is in the possession of Yvaine, the fallen star.

- A trio of wicked witches require the heart of a star in order to return to their former beauty and cheat death once more. The treacherous Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) trades magic for looks and sets out to capture Yvaine, but her ugliness is slowly returning.

- The wicked Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill) and her slave girl (Kate Magowan) hold many secrets about Tristan’s past. Will the slave girl ever be set free?

- The mysterious Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) has a reputation for villainy, tearing through the clouds in his airborne pirate ship. What cruel fate awaits the hero who crosses him?

It seems like it would be too much for one movie, yet there’s such a delicate balance in the screenplay (by Vaughn and Jane Goldman) that not only do no plot threads ever trip over each other, but they wind up intertwining in all the right ways. Storylines, genres, and moods criss and cross with such elegance, all building toward a climax so flawless in its execution that, looking back, none of the plots are ever superfluous. This is as airtight as fantasy writing gets.

In the middle of all the magic and wonder, there’s a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, which often threatens to send the film into a realm of parody but always backs off just enough. Obvious comparisons can be drawn to “The Princess Bride;” “Stardust” also sends up fairy tales while also celebrating them, although, to be fair, this is not at all a “Princess Bride” clone. Indeed, “Stardust” is a pure original - you’ve never, ever seen anything like it.

The riskiest portion of the comedy comes from De Niro, whose Shakespeare character is so over-the-top that the actor pushes very close to the sort of self-referential mockery that’s damaged his career lately. Yet De Niro winds up going a different route altogether, adding just enough heart to the role and sidestepping caricature without reducing its flat-out bizarreness. You’ll spend every frame he’s on screen wondering what in the world he’s doing, but you’ll be smiling all the way. He’s so far out there that the character works.

It’s strong acting that holds the whole picture together, in fact. Like most fantasy epics lately, “Stardust” boasts a jaw-dropping ensemble cast, all of whom work together to bring every last ounce of magic to life. Cox and Danes are delightful in the leading roles, Mark Strong shines as the devilish prince hunting them, and Rupert Everett, David Kelly, and Ricky Gervais bring huge laughs to their clownish supporting roles.

But the real winner here is Pfeiffer, who becomes one of the most memorable villains in modern cinema. She jumps from wickedly sexy to freakishly awful and back again, the twinkle in her eye never fading. Pfeiffer boldly celebrates her own beauty (she’s looking better than ever), then allows herself to sink into the uncharted depths of ugly, all for a grin. Her Lamia is vampish to the hilt, a Cruella De Vil for the Gaiman generation; she chews the scenery but never loses her threatening demeanor. This is a perfect performance.

The film around her is equally flawless, with the sort of set and costume design that helps invent a whole new world, stuffing every corner of every shot with the story’s own reality. “Stardust” is every much a feast for the eyes as it is for the heart.

With so much spirit behind it, so much lively imagination and daring wonder, “Stardust” will easily be celebrated generations from now. This is a one of a kind cinematic event, a timeless, sprawling romantic adventure that fills us with joy and awe. It is, in a word, fantastic.

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