STARDUST, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, starts with that most wonderful of fantasy conceits, a magical world that exists side-by-side with the real world, but in which no one chooses to believe. Most aren’t even curious enough about it to notice that it’s there, and that in itself is curious, since the magical kingdom, Stormhold, is separated from the rest of England by only a stone wall. There’s a world of metaphor there, but I will leave more philosophical heads to pursue that. There is nothing wrong with enjoying this film on its own, overt, terms, as a splendid action/adventure/romance suffused with magic, both black (viciously black) and white.
The wall in question, located near the not-coincidentally monikered village of Wall, has one small gap in it. Guarded by one wizened, and seemingly ineffectual old man who has been there for 90 years or so. That gap proves irresistible to Dunstan, an intrepid Victorian youth from said village, and decidedly unlike everyone else around him, he longs to see what’s on the other side. Quick wits and an agile leap get him there where he sows the seeds for the real story of the film, that of his son, Tristan (Charlie Cox). He’s the result of Dunstan’s adventure on the other side, though Tristan has no clue about that. In fact, he grows into unprepossessing manhood and an even more unprepossessing crush on the village beauty, Victoria (Sienna Miller), who, of course, doesn’t return the sentiment. A string of unfortunate decisions culminates in Tristan discovering the truth about his origins and a quest to Stormhold to meet his mother and to bring back the falling star that that he saw fall there that he impulsively promised Victoria as a token of his love.
There are three threads at work here, each equally compelling thanks to the fine adaptation by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn. First there is Tristan, questing for the star. Second are the fratricidal princes of Stormhold, none of whom can rule until the others are dead, in addition to which the survivor has to validate his claim by finding the enchanted ruby necklace flung by their dying father (Peter O’Toole deftly chewing scenery from a death bed) to the furthest wilds of Stormhold. Third, and most potently, there is the ruthless, the treacherous, the scathingly clever, and centuries-old Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), sent to find the fallen star so that she and her two hideous sisters can rip her heart out thereby restoring their own youth. Naturally, the flung necklace was what toppled Yvaine (Claire Danes), the star in question, from heaven. And just as naturally, the spell Tristan uses to find his mother send him straight to Yvaine when an inopportune stray thought about Victoria crosses his mind. And even more naturally, Yvainne is now wearing that necklace as a fashion accessory.
The ensuing journey across Stormhold is one that piles wonder on wonder, epiphany on epiphany, while at the same time not stinting on the dire peril involved. These witches slaughter a small zoo of creatures with wild abandon, not unlike the way the princely brothers dispatch one another. Tristan and Yvaine create their own tension, she sulky at being earthbound and tied to Tristan by a magical chain, he babbling on about Victoria while trying not to look askance at things like unicorns that suddenly pop up and the fact that he is leading a star by a magical chain. It would take the intervention of the preternatural to make these two realize that they are made for each other.
Though it co-stars O’Toole (however briefly), Rupert Everett (however ectoplasmically), Ricky Gervais (however self-referentially) and Robert De Niro (however unexpectedly), this is strictly Pfeiffer’s film. Her Lamia isn’t just evil, she’s giddy with it. There is something hypnotically fascinating in the pleasure she takes in being able to turn an unsuspecting peasant into a goat, pleasure that is only slightly less than the absolute contempt she has for him and everyone else. Curling her lips into an evil but dazzling smile, she cajoles before striking, like a cat playing with its prey before subjecting it to an unspeakable fate. De Niro comes close to stealing her, ahem, thunder, as Captain Shakespeare, a lighting-pirate who is leading an intricate double life as he plies his trade both through the heavens and in the worst parts of seaport cities. There is a giddiness to his performance, too, but in a far more light-hearted vein.
Cox is properly cute, even cuddly with a fine sense of purpose to him as Tristan gamely takes on the unexpected at every turn in a way that makes him if not exactly seductive, still enormously appealing. Danes may lack some of the aetherial qualities associated with stars of the astronomical variety, even dressed in what seems to be white samite, but she has a piquant tartness as well as a lingering sense of loneliness, the sort that comes of being immortal and indescribably alone up there in the heavens.
STARDUST has the right epic sweep to it even without the sparkling special effects, from a jar of eyeballs that stare back at the viewer, to Lamia’s uncertain aging process complete with mystical touch-ups that only make it worse, to a cozy inn that is conjured from (almost) thin air. It’s playful as well as clever, and while the action of the story might be completely of the otherworldly variety, it sticks close to the emotions at play here, balancing a poignant sweetness with the lurking menace of black magic and even blacker human weaknesses. It makes it not just wildly entertaining with its hairpin plot turns and heart-stopping final race, but deeply moving as well.