The village of Wall borders the magical kingdom of Stormhold. One night Dunstan Thorne manages to get past the guard posted at a gap in the wall and into the fantastical Faerie market (jar of eyeballs anyone?). There he meets a randy slave girl who deflowers him (in the nicest possible way) in the back of her caravan. Nine months later the Wall guard delivers a baby to Dunstan. His name is Tristan.
19 years on, and the king of Stormhold is on his deathbed. His seven sons are fighting for his throne by bumping each other off. Not content with simply having them kill each other, the king lobs a ruby out the window of his tower (he’s got a helluva throw for an old bloke) and decrees that the first one to find it gets the throne. But the ruby collides with a star which falls to earth. Meanwhile, over the wall, Tristan is all grown up and trying to get in Sienna Miller’s knickers (I won’t say anything rude about that here for fear of being sued). When they see the star fall from the sky, Victoria charges him with fetching it for her from the other side of the wall, in return for her knickers. Sorry, her hand in marriage. With a bit of help from his dad (who reveals that Tristan was born on the other side of the wall), Tristan sets out to retrieve it, little knowing that it’s taken human (in the shape of Claire Danes) form, who doesn’t take kindly to being kidnapped. Not only does he have to contend with a pissed off star, there are also other, more menacing Stormhold residents who want the star for themselves.
Written by my second favourite author ever Neil Gaiman, this is the second time that one of his tales has been brought to the screen. The first one was Mirrormask which was a bit hit and miss (mainly because it was really weird). Stardust (2007) is more successful than that, thanks to a stellar cast, a more accessible storyline and a great sense of humour. It’s also the second feature from director Matthew Vaughan (Layer Cake was his first so Stardust isn’t the obvious follow up to that crime caper) and he’s helped out with the writing work by Jane Goldman. This was really the first time we saw her stepp out from husband Jonathan Ross’s shadow and begin carving a pretty good niche for herself as a screenwriter.
Our lovers are played by Claire Danes as Yvaine and Charlie Cox as the bumbling Tristan Thorne. Danes, sporting an impressive English accent, is excellent as the grumpy star who’s been knocked out of the heavens. Cox also gives a convincing performance as he’s transformed from goofy village joke to dashing hero (helped no end by a new haircut).
The supporting cast is pretty amazing (as long as you’re British). Villain-wise we have four for the price of one (five if you count Ditchwater Sal). Michelle Pfeiffer plays Lamia, leader of three witches who need the star to restore their youth, with cackling glee. It’s a shame that she doesn’t play more bad guy roles like this. She exudes a real air of menace and barely-controlled rage when things don’t go her way. She, along with co-hags Joanna Scanlan as Mormo and Sarah Alexander as Empusa, the youngest of the witches, have been uglied up with great makeup jobs, and the three of them take great pleasure in dismembering small animals.
There’s also Mark Strong as the scheming Septimus, the youngest and most devious of the seven Stormhold princes. His brothers are played by a veritable smorgasboard of British filmic and comedic talent (Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Mark Heap, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Adam Buxton and David Walliams). The brothers are slowly bumping each other off, as per Stormhold tradition, and their spirits hang around after death to watch the remaining fratricides. Each bears the scars of their death – an axe to the head here, a squashed face there. It’s something that could have been quite grisly but is handled with humour and subtlety by Vaughan – when Primus is murdered in his bath, he bleeds blue blood.
Peter O’Toole plays the old king of Stormhold, with as much gravitas and dignity as an actor can when they’re playing the part of a murderous despot. And we’ve even got the newest man of steel Henry Cavill in a blink-a-couple-of-times-and-you’ll-miss-him role plus Sienna Miller as Tristan’s bitchy and demanding crush, Victoria Forester. Less successful are Robert de Niro, who’s been chucked in for the Americans along with a slightly inadvisable cross-dressing storyline, and Ricky Gervais who tits about as Ricky Gervais does (thankfully not for too long). This seems to be Vaughan and Goldman trying to buck fantasy genre stereotypes – unfortunately it falls short of the mark.
The film provides a good mix of humour and emotion. Although there’s not a vast amount of chemistry between Cox and Danes, it’s a convincing enough partnership and when Yvaine falls in love and literally starts to glow with happiness (because she’s a star – thank god that doesn’t happen in real life), you’ll be hard pushed not to crack a smile. And the fate of Tristan’s mother Una (Kate Magowan), imprisoned for years by the witch Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill) is a little bit heartbreaking. It makes for a nice happy ending with all the loose ends tied up – everybody gets what they deserve, good and bad. Which is how fairytales should end.
It also looks gorgeous. The market scene is a visual feast, the costumes are gorgeous and the interiors and exteriors amazing (and that’s not New Zealand – it’s the Isle of Skye. Yes, really). Music-wise, a weirdly incongruous (even though it was written for the film) Take That track finishes off the proceedings which seems a bit odd after the classical music that’s used throughout (Bach, Dvořák and Offenbach all feature).
Although the darker undertones of the original comic (there’s quite a bit of sex and violence) have been lost in favour of high camp and whimsy, it’s not too much of a sacrifice. Comparisons with The Princess Bride are inevitable and while Stardust doesn’t totally stand up to that, it’s an enjoyable and exciting romp (I hate that word) with a brilliant cast who look like they’re having a ball.