Monday, May 12, 2008

Stardust is golden

A few years ago my old school was in the habit of hiring recent leavers to phone around ex-pupils and ask them for money. And indeed it probably still does, but I asked them to stop phoning me. I had one memorable conversation with some bepimpled oaf whose five years of privileged education had yet to introduce him to (a) the harsh realities of life or (b) tact:
  • Him: (paraphrased) can you give us money?
  • Me: (verbatim) I was given notice today.
  • Him: (equally verbatim) Oh ... when do you think you’ll be able to make a contribution?
But on the other hand, I did once have a very pleasant conversation with a bright young man who obviously did understand harsh realities, which was fortunate because he wanted to be an actor. I still didn’t give him any money (I think) but we did chat pleasantly about his aspirations and he impressed me with tales of what he had already accomplished – bit parts here and there, gatecrashing sets, talking actors into letting him crash on their floors, etc. You can tell I was impressed because I made a rare exception and actually remembered the name of a complete stranger. Charlie Cox, and a couple of years ago I noticed his name was starting to appear on movie posters. First there was The Merchant of Venice, which I didn’t see. And then there was Stardust, which I finally saw last night, having (also finally) read the book earlier this year.

Stardust the book is a witty fairy tale by Neil Gaiman which is a pleasure to read because of its sheer fairy taleness. Now, anyone can write a fantasy with its own rules. (Though not anyone can do it well ...) Combining fantasy world with real world rules to get a third set of rules completely, internally consistent and limited to the confines of a book’s covers, is another matter. In Stardust, on the one hand you have pure fairy tale logic. The fastest way to travel is by candlelight? Naturally. A girl can be enslaved by a chain made of cobwebs and moonlight? Well duh! And on the other hand there is the logic of our own world. A fallen star may be a numinous young girl in the land of faerie but in our world it’s a lump of pitted iron. Our hero Tristran (from this world) sees a falling star and vows to bring it back to his beloved. She is a right little ball teaser and ends up getting what she deserves, but don’t let me get ahead. To retrieve the star our hero has to cross the border into faerie, and after that different rules apply. And yet, to the reader, it can all co-exist in the head without effort. It’s preposterous but you enjoy its preposternousnessness. Meanwhile the humour is pleasantly dark; good and evil are plainly good and evil; there is change and redemption; and boy gets girl (the right one) in a way that manages to be touching, innocent and realistic even to cynical adults.

Stardust the movie isn’t quite the classic it could be. It’s no Princess Bride, a movie which contains at least two lines that have made their way into popular culture (can you quote them? Go on!) and which is even more knowing about fairy taleness. But it’s no dead end of actors parading around in silly costumes either. The overall plot is retained. The story of Tristran’s origins is less satisfying, but on the other hand it’s over quicker, letting them get on with the tale. It adds a denouement which wasn’t there in the book but is probably needed: the evil witch is actively defeated, rather than just (as she does in the book) giving up. Michelle Pfeiffer obviously loves hamming up the part, and even Robert de Niro weighs in with some well-motivated method hamming of his own, greatly expanding on a bit part in the book. (Which was probably necessary to get de Niro’s services in the first place.) It doesn’t quite trust the viewer’s intelligence as much as the book did, with voiceovers to explain the bleedin’ obvious, but I suppose they knew they had to play to a broader audience. And a mercifully brief role seems to have been created for Ricky Gervais simply so that his character can be stabbed to death, which is as good a reason as any.

And most astonishing of all, both Tristran (young Charlie) and Yvaine (Claire Danes) are exactly as they should be. I’ve not seen a book-based movie before where the actors so exactly mirrored the characters from the book, but here they manage it.

The only really jarring notes come right at the end. Without any spoilers, let’s just say that Tristran is elevated way above his station and frankly looks ridiculous. And then as we fade to credits the movie uses a technique found in far too many fantasy movies to drive out the audience and get the cinema ready for the next showing – it puts a contemporary pop song over the end credits. Lord of the Rings used Enya for the job. Stardust uses – I can hardly bear to write it – Take That. So if you see it, just turn off when the movie quite obviously ends (hint: there are two stars in the sky) and preserve your happy memories.


  1. I have to admit, I really enjoyed Stardust. That doesn't make it an amazing film, but it was certainly enjoyable, with enough original ideas in (no, I haven't read the book!) to distinguish it from other fantasies.

    Very cool that you talked to him, maybe we'll be seeing more from him!

  2. What's wrong with Ricky Gervais? :O

    (great post btw!)


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