James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
Bumbling romantic Tristan Thorne journeys to retrieve a fallen star for the village beauty, unaware that other less benign forces are also in hot pursuit. Fantasy based on Neil Gaiman's novel
Sinking without a trace at the US box-office, generating a paltry return on a reported $65 million investment, Stardust's financial failure should be put squarely at backer Paramount's door. Footing the bill is rather pointless if you're not going to promote the product, and like close relative The Princess Bride's mishandled release back in 1987, the studio responsible apparently had no idea how to sell a hot fairytale.
A sad, solitary trailer did no justice to Stardust's sharp wit. And with scarcely any internet presence to speak of, what discussion there was between those unfamiliar with Neil Gaiman's book consisted predominantly of vitriol. Disheartening, since it's actually a romantic, rousing and consistently funny throwback to the celebrated 1980s fantasies they're not supposed to know how to make anymore.
Despite being an unlikely choice to direct, Layer Cake's Matthew Vaughn - co-scripting with Jane Goldman - shows a great understanding of both the material and genre, fully justifying Gaiman's decision to sell the rights to his treasured story.
With Ian McKellen's enchanting opening narration setting up the village of Wall, we're introduced to Dunstan Thorne (Barnes), a spirited young lad who fantasises about discovering what lies beyond the hamlet's limits - a desire that the decrepit yet surprisingly nimble nightwatchman warns him is a strict no-no. Naturally this acts as an irresistible tease, compelling Dunstan to leap into the kingdom of Stormhold. His wide-eyed reaction to the sprawling fantasy metropolis is wondrous, while Ilan Eshkeri's dramatic score foreshadows that it's here where Stardust's main events will be set in motion.
The first of which is Dunstan's heated encounter with Una (Magowan), a princess cursed to serve as a slave girl. "Will you liberate me?" she coos, stealing a kiss before leading him behind closed doors. It's one of the most charged encounters you'll see all year; proof that while Stardust will appeal to the kids, it has more than enough spice to keep adults satisfied.
Nine months later Dunstan receives a swaddling-clothed "unexpected souvenir" on his doorstep, who grows up to be Stardust's unwitting hero Tristan (Cox). A chip off the old block, he's a daydreamer who foolhardily pledges to journey beyond Wall in search of a fallen star to trade for the hand of town knockout Victoria (an aptly vacuous Miller).
Chasing the same celestial object, which falls in the form of Yvaine (Danes), the supporting characters are an inspired rogue's gallery. Lamia (Pfeiffer), seeking to roll back the years by feasting on the star's heart, is a particularly gruesome pleasure.
The majority of the laughs are provided by the dastardly princes of Stormhold, each after the throne and fully prepared to kill the others to get it. The poisoning sequence is an especially devilish entertainment - the camera closing in on multiple sets of accusing eyeballs like a noir whodunit reveal. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro's Captain Shakespeare is the benevolent addition to the mix, a cross-dresser masquerading as a militant marauder. He undoubtedly owes a debt to The Princess Bride's Dread Pirate Roberts, yet he's played with such affection by De Niro, the character boasts his own inimitable charm.
The relationship at Stardust's heart equally captivates. A literally luminous Claire Danes has a genuine chemistry with Charlie Cox ('Casanova'), and though their initial playground bickering is a transparent device, their romance ultimately plays out in such earnest that it's difficult to resist.
Fully warranting a stronger promotional push in the UK, particularly given that Matthew Vaughn has preserved the distinct Englishness of Neil Gaiman's novel, Stardust combines sincerity with a knowing lightness of touch not enjoyed since The Princess Bride's Westley whispered, "As you wish". Justifiably deserves to become a cherished fantasy classic.
In a nutshell: A film with true cross-generational appeal, Stardust is as satisfying as any of the summer's tent-pole blockbusters, and certainly more magical.
By Tristan Burke
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