Director Matthew Vaughn’s first film, the 2004 gangster drama Layer Cake, gave little hint of what was in store as his second. Unlike his friend Guy Ritchie, who followed Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (in which Vaughn had a small role) with the virtually identical Snatch, Vaughn swings about as far from Layer Cake as it’s possible to go, and the result is Stardust, a Victorian-era fairytale that has whimsy, wit and wonder to spare.
Like a Victorian garden, Stardust’s story is overgrown and unruly, with shoots and strands that stick out in all directions, making us wonder at first just where Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman (adapting the novel by Neil Gaiman) plan to take us. The stately opening narration of Ian McKellen takes us back 150 years, when a young man writes a letter to the British Royal Observatory.
Who the young man is and exactly what he writes is not quite explained, but we are told that it has something to do with the village of Wall in rural England. The name comes from the long wall that has stood for centuries, separating ordinary England from a mysterious other world. One night, a young man named Dunstan eludes the guard at the wall and crosses over to see what’s on the other side. After a night of bliss with a mysterious girl at a magical country fair, Dunstan returns home. Nine months later he finds an infant on his doorstep with a note: “His name is Tristran.” Dunstan has the wit to know who Tristran’s parents are.
Eighteen years later, Tristran (Charlie Cox) has grown to young manhood, besotted with a disdainful local maiden. Seeing a falling star one night, he rashly promises to find the star beyond the wall and bring it back to her. Eluding the now-elderly guard just as his father did, he sets off on his quest.
Meanwhile, in Stormhold, that magic country beyond the wall, the king (a wry cameo by Peter O’Toole) is dying, leaving the throne to be fought over by his surviving ruthless sons. In another part of Stormhold are an ugly witch named Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer, relishing another villain’s role) and her equally hideous sisters (Sarah Alexander, Joanna Scanlan). The princes and the witches all see the falling star, and all seek it for their own purposes.
But Tristran reaches the star first, where it has fallen to the ground in the beautiful form of Yvaine (Claire Danes). Yvaine and Tristran form an uneasy agreement, she to help him win the heart of his fair maid, he to help her return to the sky.
How these various threads mingle and resolve themselves is the airy substance of Stardust. It’s less simple than we usually think of a fairytale being; peripheral characters come in for a scene or two, and we’re not always sure whether they’re important or if they will stay around or ever return. Vaughn and Goldman have a way of springing things on us that keeps us slightly off balance; the plot turns have a storybook familiarity, but “happily ever after” doesn’t always seem a sure thing.
It’s a balancing act that isn’t always smooth. A sequence with Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, sailing a fabulous airship like something out of Jules Verne, pirating lightning from the sky, teeters on the brink of low camp and falters for a moment into Monty Python hooting. The sidebar is redeemed by the visual wonder of the ship and the surprise of where the scene takes us, and we forgive De Niro for his klutzy hamming—and the fact that he sounds about as English as a Bronx cheer.
A glance at Gaiman’s novel (I haven’t read it all) suggests that it’s more earnest and guileless than Vaughn and Goldman’s script. The movie has something of the parodic smirk of The Princess Bride, particularly in the early banter between Claire Danes and Charlie Cox. Not exactly Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, they sound more like “what-ever” high-schoolers squabbling over their lunch trays. Perhaps it’s a ploy to hook the teenagers early on. If so, it works, and as affection grows between the two, the movie straightens its face.
Stardust is a likeable charmer, sweet and satisfying, like a bedtime story invented by playful parents. What do you suppose Vaughn plans to do next?