Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Charlie Cox, Ian McKellan, Sienna Miller, Mark Strong, Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Daines, Robert DeNiro
Rated: PG-13 for some fantasy violence and risque humor.
Parental Notes: This is not a graphic film at all, though some of the fantasy violence might scare younger children.
Back in 1999, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess gave us a lavishly illustrated fantasy tale about a young man who sets out in search of a fallen star and finds far, far more than he bargained for. Now, Matthew Vaughn, who has given us “Layer Cake” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” has brought that tale to life.
It is the eighteenth century. Young Tristan Thorn lives in Wall, a beautiful village in the English countryside. He is in love with the town beauty, Victoria (Sienna Miller), and in a moment of desperation, he offers to retrieve a fallen star they watch streaking across the sky. She, in the way of beautiful and unattainable women in fairy tales, tells him that if he can bring her the star before her birthday, she will marry him. The star, however, has landed in the realm on the other side of the wall that gives the village its name, and that realm is very different from ours.
For one thing, the star turns out to be a young woman named Yvaine (Claire Daines), who is not particularly interested in being a birthday present. However, Tristan has a plan to return her to the sky, so she goes with him. This turns out to be a wise move on her part, as there are a number of other people interested in acquiring her, and none of them seem quite as nice as Tristan. One is a witch, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who plans to cut out her heart and share it with her sisters to maintain their eternal life. Another is the youngest prince of Stormhold, Septimus (Mark Strong), who (along with three of his brothers) is after the gemstone that knocked Yvaine from the sky. Whichever prince retrieves the stone will be the new king, and Septimus is a very determined man. He’s already murdered three of his brothers when the film begins, and they follow him about like a ghostly peanut gallery.
Tristan and Yvaine must elude the witch and the princes, survive an encounter with the fearsome air pirate Captain Shakespeare (Robert DeNiro), who has a terrifying reputation, and make it back to Wall in one piece. It’s an classic quest story, with chase scenes, fights, our hero learning a little too quickly to be good with a sword (anything is possible with a training montage, I suppose), and some sweet romance to boot.
There’s also a great deal of hilarity. Septimus’ late brothers are a delight and while I won’t spoil the surprise, Robert DeNiro’s character made me laugh so hard I nearly wept. But it’s not just a comedy — in very British fashion, there are touching moments mixed in with the humor, as well as a number of frightening scenes where it’s clear just how nasty the bad guys can be. There is even a sequence during the climactic fight which is at once hilarious and very, very creepy.
“Stardust” is not a huge-budget fantasy epic, and there are a handful of green-screen wide shots where that is rather painfully obvious. Fortunately, all the effects that actually count for the story are very well done. When she’s happy, Yvaine shimmers with a twinkling starlight that is absolutely lovely. The witches’ magic is elegant and frightening. And the lightening the pirates harvest is simple but wonderful.
It’s difficult to critique the acting in a film like “Stardust” — fairy tales aren’t exactly known for their challenging parts. The characters are simple, for the most part, and the actors wear them effortlessly. Perhaps the invisibility of the actors’ work in the film is a sign of their talent, or of the way that the film’s pacing keeps one wrapped up in the story enough not to notice the craft behind the scenes.
Either way, the experience of the film is wonderful. Stardust is a delight, a fairy tale grownups can enjoy.