Max DeCurtins revisits Stardust, which proves to be all zany plot with little depth, and maybe that’s just the kind of thing we need right now.
Let me just begin by saying that Stardust is a bonkers movie.
Flying necklaces. Falling stars. Eating hearts. Babylon candles. Robert De Niro cross-dressing (sort of). Voodoo. Narration by the one and only Sir Ian McKellen.
Its premise, its plot elements, its execution, its occasionally self-aware musical score . . . they’re all bonkers. I don’t really have any significant context for my first viewing of the movie ten years ago, except that I think it was on a Netflix DVD.
THAT’S RIGHT, KIDS. NETFLIX USED TO MAIL YOU ACTUAL DVDS. WHICH YOU HAD TO PUT IN AN ACTUAL DVD PLAYER. WHAAAAAT.
Also, the iPhone had just been released a few weeks earlier. #old
Anyway, let’s get right to the movie.
The story begins with Dunstan Thorn (Ben Barnes), a teenage boy who lives in an English country village called Wall (so named for the wall that runs alongside it) that looks like it came out of a fucking Thomas Kinkade painting. One night Dunstan, perplexed by said wall, brazenly steals through its solitary gap—guarded around the clock by a wizened watchman with mutton chops in a top hat, because of course he has mutton chops and wears a top hat—to find out what lurks on the other side.
Let’s consider this for a moment. Why doesn’t anyone in England just hop over the wall at literally. any. other. point? You know, someplace where it’s not guarded? The thing’s only about as tall as an average adult. You can see what’s on the other side. #plothole
He stumbles upon a market town near the wall and promptly encounters a world full of exotic sights and sounds, of flashes of colorful fabrics and flickering flames. His gaze falls on an exceedingly beautiful young woman sitting in the doorway of a dainty yellow carriage that looks like it might house Little Bo Peep on the weekends. She is, in fact, Princess Una of Stormhold (Kate Magowan), held captive by a witch named Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill). Note to self: if I ever open a bar, I’m going to call it Ditchwater Sal’s and serve fifty different cocktails based on small-batch gin. #thehipsterscometh
Dunstan covers for his transfixion by asking about buying an enchanted flower. The one he buys costs a kiss, she says, and they lock lips. Seeing that Dunstan has noticed her captivity, Una asks—in a way that obviously does not invite a double entendre—if he’ll “liberate” her. He attempts to cut the chain, but it repairs itself right in front of his eyes. “If I can’t liberate you,” he asks, “what do you want of me?”
Dunstan returns that night to his home in England, Sir Ian narrates, “hoping his adventure would soon be forgotten.” WAIT BUT WHY. YOU LITERALLY WANDERED INTO THE FIRST TOWN YOU SAW IN A MAGICAL LAND AND HAD SEX WITH A REALLY BEAUTIFUL WOMAN WHO WAS ALL OVER YOU LIKE BUTTER ON TOAST. ARE YOU MAD.
“Nine months later,” Sir Ian continues, “he received an unexpected souvenir”—in the form of baby Tristan. Dunstan, a single father (Nathaniel Parker plays him as an adult), tells Tristan nothing of his “unconventional heritage.” Stardust doesn’t dwell much on Dunstan’s relationship to his son, but the implication of a positive, single fatherhood in which he tries to connect to Tristan with emotional honesty and guidance makes for a nice—if very brief—addition to the story.
It’s eighteen years later, and Tristan (Charlie Cox) has turned into a klutzy teenager smitten with the local belle Victoria (Sienna Miller), who regularly takes advantage of Tristan’s infatuation even while putting him down. “But never mind how the infant became a boy,” narrates Sir Ian. “This is this story of how Tristan Thorn becomes a man—a much greater challenge altogether, for to achieve it, he must win the heart of his one true love.”
Bullshit. More like he needs to figure out how to get some fucking self-respect.
In a last-ditch effort to win over Victoria, Tristan prepares a candlelit picnic with champagne. As he puts up with one humiliation after another the stars, we are told, watch the magical kingdom of Stormhold, where the current king (Peter O’Toole) is dying. In reminding his surviving sons—the dead ones linger on like Greek chorus of wisecracking Brits—that the throne must pass to a male heir, he confusedly inquires about his lone daughter, Una. Primus responds that “nobody’s seen Una for years.” WELL SHE’S YOUR SISTER SO HOW ABOUT YOU GO SEEK HER OUT YOU FUCKING FRATRICIDAL, PATRIARCHAL MORONS.
The king removes his royal necklace and decrees that the first of his heirs to recover it and restore the ruby gem therein will succeed him, at which point the necklace takes off like a bat out of Hell and flies into the heavens. It collides with a star, which falls back to Earth (er, Stormhold) along almost exactly the same trajectory, conveniently ignoring the conservation of momentum and vectors of force, because #whoneedsisaacnewton.
Tristan and Victoria observe the falling star from the England side of the wall, and she promises that if he can cross the wall and bring her back the fallen star by her birthday in one week’s time she’ll marry him instead of her dick suitor Humphrey (Henry Cavill). Meanwhile, on the Stormhold side, the evil witch queen Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) sees the star fall and alerts her witch sisters Empusa (Sarah Alexander, of Coupling niche-fame) and Mormo (Joanna Scanlan). Using what’s left of the last star to have fallen in Stormhold—who presumably did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards—Lamia regains just enough youth and beauty to set out in search of the witches’ new quarry, whose heart will replenish their magical powers.
I’ve always been interested in the different ways that common elements of fantasy stories—magic, boundaries between the fantasy world and the real world, etc.—vary from story to story. Take magic, for example. In Harry Potter, magic is something that’s used all the time, by almost everybody, and it’s a very visible practice: wand-pointing, pseudo-Latin spell names (in the movies, at any rate, there seems to be a grand total of about 8 spells), flashes of illumination, and so on. Contrast this with magic in The Lord of the Rings, where the wizards and the elves only occasionally utter an incantation, and it’s nothing so pointedly action-driven as it is in Harry Potter. In The Chronicles of Narnia, magic plays out more like a religion. The whole idea behind magic, of course, is the part where you get something for nothing, a “get out of jail” card where consequences—not to mention the immutable laws of physics—are concerned. The genie of the lamp—who may or may not be blue and voiced by Robin Williams—grants you three wishes. Poof! Gold and a palace, out of nowhere. What’s interesting about Stardust is the idea that practicing magic carries a price; using it will turn you into one ugly fucker, Dorian Gray-style.
Magic with conditions makes, in my estimation, for far more interesting stories than magic without them; Pushing Daisies wouldn’t have been nearly so marvelous if not for the fundamental underlying problem that reanimating something dead for longer than 60 seconds robs the life from something or someone nearby, to say nothing of the tension created by Ned being unable to touch Charlotte lest she revert to being dead—forever. Magic with a price forces its wielders to be a little more human because they must grapple with the trade-off(s), and in life there are always trade-offs. In the case of Stardust, the evil witches pursue fallen stars to recapture the youth and the beauty of which their magic has deprived them. But back to the story.
We discover that fallen stars in Stormhold manifest as beautiful young women, in this case one named Yvaine (Claire Danes). She puts on the royal necklace after spotting it lying next to her, and shortly thereafter after gets mowed down by Tristan, who flies in by the light of a Babylon candle, which transports the user to whatever location they are thinking of when the candle is lit. Tristan used the candle to travel to his mother (you know, the one he’s never met), but then got distracted thinking about Victoria and the fallen star, and abracadabra, he and Yvaine are stuck with each other. This, by the way, is not the first time in Stardust that Tristan is going to get screwed by his inability to think like someone other than a distracted teenager. He leashes Yvaine with his enchanted chain, and declares that she’s going to be a birthday gift for Victoria, after which he’ll give her the remaining part of his Babylon candle so that she can return to the sky.
They set off on their journey, at which point the hunt for the fallen star and the royal necklace then begins in earnest. First we see Lamia, then Septimus, and finally Primus trekking all over creation in pursuit of Yvaine and the gem that knocked her out of the sky. Stardust has its fair share of dramatic wide-angle shots of people riding across vast landscapes, accompanied by equally dramatic music. More than a few of these shots evince some degree of influence from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, arguably the reigning champions of high fantasy film. My favorite moment in these sequences is when we get the slowed-down, tight shot of some hero or villain on horseback that definitely does not evoke sexual exertion in any way.
Lamia’s sister witches inform her that Yvaine is en route to intercept her, and they instruct her to lay a trap for the fallen star so that she will be sufficiently comforted before, you know, having her fucking heart cut out of her chest. Lamia conjures a roadside inn and waits for her prey to arrive.
Tristan chains Yvaine to a tree and goes off to the next village to find something to eat—great job on that whole becoming a man thing!—and returns to find Yvaine gone, freed in his absence by a unicorn who is, unfortunately, leading her straight into Lamia’s trap. After receiving a cosmic plea to help Yvaine, Tristan runs headlong into Primus’ passing carriage and badgers his way into hitching a ride. At this point, it should be clear that Stormhold is a hellish dystopia if you’re a fallen star; there’s barely a soul around who doesn’t want to kill you and eat your heart for a little beauty or immortality.
First Yvaine, then Tristan and Primus arrive at Lamia’s Inn of Deceit and Death. One of the tidbits I encountered in pulling up info for this movie was a note that the scoring during the scenes at Lamia’s Inn contains an adaptation of the C-minor prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Because I am a certified (certifiable?) #bachnerd, I went back to this section and combed the score, and indeed it’s there. It’s hard to detect, but watch this scene and listen, and you’ll hear in the harp, at a very slow tempo:
Lamia’s about to murder Yvaine when Primus and Tristan show up. She first attempts to poison Primus with a tainted cup of wine, but being one of the more mildly stupid men in this movie (and there are a LOT of stupid men), he refuses. Her plan facing mounting problems, Lamia retrieves her knife and slits Primus’ throat just as Tristan—who accepted the poisoned wine but had his ass saved by the unicorn—bursts into the inn to warn him of the danger. She traps Tristan and Yvaine in a ring of fire, accompanied by foreboding organ music, because our cultural references have come to code the organ as a musical marker of evil. I blame Dracula and Phantom of the Opera.
They escape using what’s left of Tristan’s Babylon candle—you know, the thing he promised to give her so she could return to the heavens—and materialize in the middle of a thunderstorm, thanks to Tristan’s comically vague directions. They stand there for a minute, feet in a cloud, and you start to wonder why the fuck they’re not falling. Just when you think your #physicsproblems are going to start gnawing at your suspension of disbelief—oh wait, that’s just me?—they get captured by a ragtag bunch of sky pirates who harvest lightning.
Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) commands the sky pirates, who fly in a ship that looks like a cross between a schooner and a blimp. If you’re going to sail the skies, why not do it in style? He talks tough in front of his crew, and threatens to throw Tristan over the side for crossing him during his interrogation, but as soon as he’s diverted the crew’s attention with the aid of an anthropomorphic dummy and some garden-variety violent asshole behavior toward a woman, we discover that Shakespeare’s just a big old softie at heart.
De Niro’s queer turn as Captain Shakespeare got a lot of attention back in 2007, even to the effect that his performance stole the show, and I don’t hesitate to say that I think the critical reception of his role was overblown. Pfeiffer’s performance as Lamia is, if anything, the most commanding in Stardust; De Niro’s is performance is, perhaps, a strong runner-up. Is it campy? Yes. Does it help enliven the movie? Yes. Ten years later, do I find it stereotyping AF? Jesus Christ, yes.
That this was considered daring (see point #3 from Entertainment Weekly’s recent pass at a 10YA retrospective on Stardust) says something about how little it really takes to shock a heteronormative audience. Captain Shakespeare is literally performing masculinity for his crew (save for his first officer, played by Dexter Fletcher, who isn’t buying that shit), and I guess people thought that De Niro wearing a feather boa, sporting a feathered fan, and dancing around to the Can-Can—yet another thing the world can thank Jacques Offenbach for—made for edgy cinema.
The pirates stop at a mountaintop port to sell the lightning they’ve caught to a merchant named Ferdy (Ricky Gervais), and then set off to bring Tristan and Yvaine in the direction of the wall. En route, Captain Shakespeare teaches Tristan how to fight and Yvaine how to waltz (to a Slavonic Dance by Dvořák—commence eye-rolling). I guess in 2007 we weren’t yet at a point where Captain Shakespeare could have taught both of them to fight and both of them to waltz. Pointy things for the boys, and dainty things for the girls. Sigh. Thankfully, at least we know by now that Tristan and Yvaine have fallen in love with each other, and head into Act III.
Shakespeare leaves them off on a road that will take them to the wall, and they start to make their way back. They encounter Ditchwater Sal, who can’t perceive Yvaine’s presence thanks to being hexed by Lamia earlier in the movies, and she bargains with Tristan for passage to the wall in exchange for the snowdrop flower of protection that Una gave to Dunstan eighteen years ago. Tristan, because he’s STILL pretty much a moron three-quarters of the way through this story, gives Sal the flower—and she immediately turns him into a mouse. During their passage, Yvaine feeds Tristan the Mouse some cheese and gives a very earnest speech about love and being in love with him. This is, I think, one of several moments in Stardust when it’s not exactly clear how serious the tone of the movie is meant to be. Maybe love is “strangely easy to mistake for loathing,” as Yvaine says, but in my experience it mostly just makes things exceptionally difficult to think about with any degree of intelligence.
They spend a night at the Slaughtered Prince inn in the market town near the wall, and the next morning Tristan shears a lock of Yvaine’s hair to present to Victoria and sets off for his village in England to tell her off, but of course the instructions he leaves with the hungover innkeeper are idiotically easy to misinterpret, which is exactly what Yvaine does upon waking and asking the disgruntled innkeeper for Tristan’s message. She thinks that Tristan is still stuck on Victoria and that he’s abandoned her to go back to England, so she sets off for the wall to see Victoria for herself, because Jesus fucking Christ, after having half of Stormhold wanting to murder her and eat her internal organs, Yvaine deserves some goddamned answers. Una, back to tending Ditchwater Sal’s stall in the marketplace, locks a sleeping Sal in the back of the Little Bo Peep carriage and takes off to warn Yvaine that crossing the wall will mean her death.
Meanwhile, we finally get to see some evidence that Tristan has grown up: he reaches for a pebble to flick at Victoria’s window, but thinks the better of it and just knocks at the door like a fucking grownup. He dumps Victoria—literally—and then stands up for himself by showing Humphrey he’s perfectly capable of kicking Humphrey’s ass. Victoria unwraps the lock of Yvaine’s hair that Tristan gave her, and throws it at him, asking: “Why would anyone want this? It’s just a measly handful of stardust.” Tristan realizes that Yvaine can’t cross the wall or she’ll die, and he takes off.
Una, having saved Yvaine from entering England and ending up as so much charred rock, gets reeled in by an angry Ditchwater Sal like a halibut, at which point Lamia shows up in her carriage. Lamia and Ditchwater Sal duel, and the latter dies, which frees Una at long last. No sooner is she freed than Lamia takes them both captive and makes a beeline for her palace of death and grand staircases.
Tristan arrives at the scene too late, but sensibly surveys the remnants of Sal’s carriage and retrieves his snowdrop flower of protection. He hops on Sal’s horse and gallops off to save Yvaine with a little help from Septimus, who shows up at the witches’ palace and manages to take out Empusa before Lamia kills him with a voodoo doll. Never mind that Stardust is basically a white English person kind of fantasy, and that voodoo is very much . . . not any of those things. (We’ve already mixed a number of metaphors in this movie; what’s one more?)
And then, in absurdly short order, the following things happen:
- Tristan finds out that Una is his mother. Apparently this information is SO IMPORTANT that it warrants being broken in the middle of a crisis situation.
- Tristan liberates the caged animals who have watched Mormo sacrifice one of their number after another; they head straight for her and maul her to death.
- Yvaine sees that Tristan has come to rescue her and literally sets herself aglow.
- Tristan fights off Septimus’ corpse that Lamia is controlling using the voodoo doll.
- He and Lamia fence, and she disarms him. Taking a moment to notice that her sister witches are dead, she throws down her weapons and tells Tristan and Yvaine to leave, weeping that “youth [and] beauty . . . all seem meaningless now.” Psshhhh. Like we’re buying that shit after the whole fucking movie. Lady, they weren’t meaningless for Dorian Gray; look what happened to him!
- They almost make it out, until SURPRISE! Lamia traps them inside, and starts blowing out the windows with her magic.
- Somehow they survive thousands of shards of glass coming at them at high velocity. #physicsproblems #alsosurvivalproblems
- As Lamia prepares to kill them both, Yvaine suddenly remembers she’s a fucking star and now that her true love is with her, she doesn’t have to put up with this whole being murdered and then consumed bullshit. She tells Tristan to hold her and shut his eyes, and lets loose a tidy little blast of starshine, which blows Lamia into smithereens.
Whew. That was a lot to get through in like three minutes, but don’t worry, because this fairy tale’s almost over. Tristan goes to recover the stone from the broken necklace and finds that it turns red in his hands, at which point Una tells him that he’s the last surviving male heir of the Stormhold bloodline, and we get a very nice transition into Tristan’s coronation as king.
For once, my general peeve about fantasy stories that I first mentioned in my re-view of The Chronicles of Narnia—wherein the protagonist(s) unceremoniously end(s) up back in the real world after having discovered a life of greater purpose in the magical world—doesn’t happen in Stardust. Tristan stays in the magical realm where he belongs, and it’s not a stretch to say that the ending of Stardust is the fairy-tale ending that checks allllll the boxes: Tristan finds the love of his life, becomes king, gets his parents back, and gets to dish out a big-ass serving of comeuppance to Victoria, Toby Ziegler style.
Ten years later, Stardust strikes me as a movie that’s cheesier than I remember, but it’s still a fun movie that doesn’t take itself seriously. It provides, as ever, that damned tease of the imagination: wouldn’t it be swell (especially now) if we could just cross the threshold into a magical world where you can actually vanquish the bad guys? I’m realizing that I want more depth to the material—I want to know more about Dunstan’s father-son relationship with Tristan, the geography of Stormhold, the history of the wall, the backstory of the witches—but it’s plainly not the kind of saga that could sustain two films. The story is straightforward enough and fairy tale-like in its simplicity, but it’s wacky enough in its disposition that Stardust doesn’t feel overly formulaic—at least not all the time. It’s the kind of movie that makes for some good escapist fun with an occasional watching, and given that in this week’s episode of Batshit Crazy the United States government very plausibly threatened war with North Korea, a little slightly-better-than-average escapist fun is just what we need.