Not So Bright
'Stardust' Fails the Test of the Best Fantasies
Most of "Stardust," alas, has no time for such detours. The story began as an illustrated novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, debuting as a four-part DC Comics project in 1997. Its mid-19th Century hero is young Tristran Thorn, described by the author as "a gangling creature of potential." He promises to deliver a fallen star into the hands of his beloved, who, like Tristran, lives in an English village separated by a stone wall from the magical land of Stormhold, ruled by a dying king whose sons vie for the tracks of faerie land. There the horizons are further darkened by a gaggle of witches, for whom a fallen star holds the secret of eternal youth. Already I'm losing track, but that's how it is with me and anything more elaborate than "Go, Dog. Go!"
Claire Danes takes top billing as the star woman, Yvaine, whose earthly fate is one of many plot strands in a narrative that had an easier time of it on the page. Danes is an excellent actress, and something of a star herself. (If the film version of "Shopgirl" were any better, her performance would've been widely recognized for what it was: a moving embodiment of dashed and then fulfilled hopes in a romantically diminished era.) But this is not an especially interesting role, and Danes struggles to make this diva who fell to Earth memorable.
The cast of "Stardust" is indeed a starry one, with Peter O'Toole allowed a few seconds of screen time as the dying king (nothing compared to what he does, with voice alone, in "Ratatouille") and Rupert Everett playing one of his patented fatuous Prince Charming types, this one a ghost. To mixed results, the screen adaptation amps up the roles played by De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The latter swans around in thick hag makeup, when she's not appearing as her suspiciously ageless middle-aged self. She's not bad, but Pfeiffer rarely surprises you with a line reading; nothing ever gets tossed off or sped up or delivered with a little topspin.
Directed and co-adapted (with Jane Goldman) by Matthew Vaughn, "Stardust" piles on the conflict and the bombast. It invents a showdown between Tristran and Lamia the evil sorceress (Pfeiffer) that goes on and on and on. The scene depicting De Niro's closeted pirate mincing around to Offenbach's famous "Orpheus" cancan goes on as well, and it makes you wonder if some things simply weren't meant to be.
Author Gaiman has acknowledged the influence of C.S. Lewis and the "Narnia" books, and at the center of "Stardust" lies the tantalizing notion of what lies beyond everyday experience. Such notions of parallel-universe magic have to be worked out visually, in ways that cannot be left entirely to the digital effects teams. While Vaughn's gangster film "Layer Cake" had some force and stylish meanness going for it, as well as a good performance from Daniel Craig, judging from "Stardust" the director is a rather heavy-handed fantasist.
You end up clinging to the little payoffs, such as De Niro's encounter with Gervais, or the sight of Mark Williams' innkeeper, recently transformed into a goat and gnawing on a towel, or Kate Magowan's vibrant, too-brief appearance as the mysterious slave girl in the Faerie Market. It's the big stuff that doesn't really work, at least well enough to be called special.
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