reviewed by Tom-Tom
My experiences with reading Neil Gaiman have been unfortunate. I’ve read two of his books and rather than having been the originals, they were the reedited, expanded versions. They seemed bloated and aimless works with solid ideas and great creativity forfeited by the unedited mess in which I found them having been lent to me by a friend. They weren’t the taut, creepy Doctor Who episodes I know he can write nor the excellent TV shows and movies I know his works can inspire. Thankfully, today I am reviewing his great fantasy work Stardust directed by none other than Matthew Vaughn (Kickass, Kingsman) which I have not yet read. The mid to late 00’s of the new century gave birth to a variety of young adult fantasy films no doubt spurred on by the three stately films of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and various Disney films which began to toe the dangerous line allotted by PG-13 and even PG ratings on how much violence or frightening situations could be allowed for any one film’s given viewership. Pirates of the Caribbean pushed the envelope further especially considering it was made by Disney. I remember the mass hangings at the beginning of the third film shocking me quite a bit for this very reason. This all led filmmakers, one could reason, to make films geared to youths but without embarrassing or boring the parents or guardians who came along to satisfy the requirements of PG-13 ratings viewer regulations.
Stardust is one such film, excellently written with biting delight. It has much to say about love, life, and adventure without getting tripped up in its own ego. It’s so bursting with originality and one-liners nicely counterpointed with really mean witches and equally mean heirs to the throne of a magical land of Stormhold that we want to care about for all the interesting characters which populate it.
The story begins in a place other than Stormhold in the strangely titled village of Wall. An elderly man with lambchop sideburns and a big walking stick guards a gap in the eponymous Wall attempting to dissuade any cheeky youths who may like to pass over to the other side. A dark-haired handsome youth named Dunstan Thorn does just that but passes over not into just a field but into an alien world where witches roam free selling their wares and enslave beautiful women to do their bidding which enchanted chains which can be cut but not broken permanently and things are sold for memories, hair color, or just a kiss. Enchanted by such a slave girl, Dunstan spends a romantic evening, after which, 9 months later in fact, he receives a baby bundle to raise on his own. That is our hero, Tristan.
Tristan is a bit of a loser although an aloof, good natured one. He is used by the local beauties to help them of their immediate woes for nothing in return but to give him false hope. The leader of these and Tristan’s hopeful future Mrs. Thorn is Victoria who suffers Tristan as long as it suits her and whenever who true love Humphrey isn’t around. She kind of reminded me of Lucy Westenra, the ditzy debutante of the three suitors of whom she chooses the richest of noblest blood making her later horrible vampiric death all the more tolerable. Who hasn’t been a Tristan? In love with someone who actually doesn’t deserve you rather than the other way around, jumping through hoops in attempts to turn the tide in your favor. Having not even stepped on magical terrain while fully grown, he’s already under the spell of Victoria. He promises idiotically to procure for her a fallen star which they see fall in the distance over the wall of Wall.
Tristan hears his father’s story about Stormhold, Tristan’s birth, and the magical items his mother left for him including a Babylonian Candle which can take its user anywhere when lit and a glass snowdrop flower which just seems like decoration. He uses it and finds the star but not as we would imagine one. It is a beautiful young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes) which quite a mouth on her. Her invectives against Tristan are quite hilarious.
The falling of the star has caused quite a fuss in the magical land and three dark witches old and wrinkly living in cobwebbed squalor albeit in a castle. The sight of the celestial event gives them hope to regain their power and youth. You see, the witches three eat the hearts of stars. One does so here and we marvel as her wrinkles smooth out and her cobweb-like hair becomes silky blond. It’s Michelle Pfieffer, hot as ever but with magical power which ages her as she uses it. These aren’t silly witches who wait until it is too late to attack their victims. They are shrewd and vicious. They also kill various rodents and use their entrails of the poor things to divine their path.
Elsewhere, four sons gather around their father, (Peter O’Toole) the king’s deathbed. They all bear names which detail their order of birth. Primus (Jason Flemyng), Secundus, Tertius, Septimus (Mark Strong). It seems the right for succession is deemed to be a sort of battle royal. Immediately, one son is murdered by another and another dies soon afterwards. Their ghosts are transported to a sort of limbo until the true successor becomes king via obtaining a gem the deceased king lobbed to the heavens (which knocked aforementioned star down in the first place. She wields the gem around her neck while in human form). The surviving brothers race to find the gem while the deceased brothers bicker from the beyond in a sort of Beetlejuice-like state of death eg smashed, slit throated, frozen, etc.
All these inspiring elements contribute to the joy and zeal of the adventures, whose multi-tiered aspects constantly endear our attention. Of particular interest for me is a farm boy who is charged by his mother to sell a goat. He experiences many cross species and cross gender transformations only to be threatened by one of the Numeric Princes. Poor guy.
Tristan happily experiences a series of positive changes perhaps a bit quickly in film time yet probably well fleshed out in the original novel. I love to see characters evolve on screen or in books and Tristan’s transformation is fun to see.
As a bit of a Post Script, you may have heard that Robert De Niro is in this film. He plays a role I am pretty sure he’s never done anywhere else before or since. It is so refreshing that I wanted to applaud him. There’s so much to love in this film. I highly recommend it to all.