|The Man in the Iron Mask
Admittedly, when I first saw the confusing trailer for THE MAN IN
THE IRON MASK, I was less than impressed. In fact, it looked like a
downright hoot, an amalgam of varying accents (I mean the three
Musketeers played by a Brit, a Frenchman and an American !), acting
styles and more buckle than swash. In fact, I approached the screening
with the feeling that if nothing else, it would be a campy treat of bad
acting wrapped in gorgeous costumes. The actual film, however, falls
somewhere in between.
This is like the seventh filming of the Alexandre Dumas (père)
novel which recounts the further adventures of Athos, Porthos, Aramis
and D'Artagnan. The original swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks had a go
at the material with the silent THE IRON MASK (1929), directed by
Allan Dwan. James Whale's excellent 1939 version was the standard
for many years. The 1977 television version was designed as a vehicle
for Richard Chamberlain and in 1998, there were dueling versions —
the big-budgeted MGM release written and directed by Randall Wallace
and the low-budget independent one overseen by William Richert.
(The latter has only played in L.A. where the critics vehemently
dismissed it.) What all the versions have in common is a lack of full
faithfulness to the original novel.
Wallace's big-budget version takes the most liberties with the
tale. As a director, he shows himself to be a good writer. The tension
of the story does not fully kick in until the latter half, and there are
many awkward scenes to establish the characters, several of which
fall flat. The exposition is clumsy and clumsily staged. Yet, once the
Musketeers reunite and retrieve the titular character, things pick up
and, like BRAVEHEART, the film becomes a crowd-pleaser. The
audience goes along with the story, accepting and reveling in the
plot twists (some of which are baldly telegraphed) and having a
grand old time.
It takes a great while to get used to the international cast,
the varying accents and acting styles. It was a brilliant stroke to cast
Irons and Malkovich (as the religious Aramis and the moral Athos,
respectively), as these actors have played their share of screen psychos
(think DEAD RINGERS and IN THE LINE OF FIRE, respectively). It's
a quirky pleasure to seem them in heroic personae. Gérard Depardieu
as the lusty Porthos is used primarily for comic effect, some of which
works, some of which doesn't. The best of the bunch is Irishman
Gabriel Byrne's loyal D'Artagnan. Also noteworthy is Anne Parillaud
as the Queen Mother. It's a role far removed from LA FEMME NIKITA
but Parillaud imbues her royal character with dimension and passion.
The less said about Judith Godreche (so good in RIDICULE, here making
her English-language debut), the better. (Obviously, something was
lost in the translation.) Special mention should be made to Peter
Sarsgaard who plays Malkovich's son Raoul. The young actor is entirely
believable in the role, going so far as to mimic Malkovich's odd speech
patterns, just as a real son might his father's.
And what of the film's star, Leonardo DiCaprio? Having proven
himself a capable and fine actor in films like his Oscar-nominated turn
in WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE and in the blockbuster TITANIC
(sorry, but I though he was fine as Jack Dawson, taking what was
essentially a one-dimensional stereotype and turning the character
into flesh and blood), he is a bit uneven at first. It takes some
getting used to him as the petulant and spoiled King Louis XIV.
DiCaprio at first seems out of his element, but gradually comes
into his own — the king's imperiousness and inherent cruelty seem
a stretch for the actor; it's like watching a Valley guy play at being
a tough. But eventually, DiCaprio discovers his rhythm and becomes
the Sun King. (He wears the period designs well, without a hint of
discomfort.) The handsome young actor fares better, however, as
the king's twin, using his expressive eyes to depict a kindly, but
emotionally wounded individual. In a dual role, DiCaprio manages
to delineate the differences between the characters and carries the film.
Part of me was disappointed that the film wasn't the camp classic,
I had hoped it would be. The hokey, overblown score and some
misdirection, aside, the film is a visual feast. Oscar-nominated
production designer Anthony Pratt, cinematographer Peter Suschitzsky
and three-time Academy Award-winning costume designer James
Acheson have provided astounding technical support. While
THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK won't win any awards and probably
won't make any critics' Ten Best list, it is delightful, light entertainment.
|© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.