Friday, February 29, 2008


I seem to recall the tag-line on the poster for 'Stardust' being something like "the fairytale that won't behave itself".

Good call.

The works of Neil Gaiman have never slotted neatly into categories, even when the genre touchstones seem to be present and correct. There are elements of horror, fantasy and mystery throughout his ouevre, but the only way you could accurately categorise Neil Gaiman is by coming up with a new genre - and you'd have to call it Neil Gaiman.

Maybe it's the enigmatic quality to his work, maybe it's because his imagination overarches the mainstream and goes heading off into new territories that are completely his own, but Gaiman adaptations are thin on the ground. In the 90s, he developed 'Neverwhere' for the BBC, then reimagined it as a novel. A couple of years ago, Gaiman's long-standing collaborator, the illustrator Dave McKean, made his directorial debut with the Gaiman-scripted 'MirrorMask', an offbeat, under-rated, often bizarre but ultimately beautiful film.

'Stardust', however, is Neil Gaiman's introduction to the mainstream: a decently budgeted adaptation, its cast balancing out newcomers (Charlie Cox, Kate Magowan) and flavours du jour (Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais) with Hollywood heavyweights (Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert de Niro). If the cast is oddball, so is the director: Matthew Vaughn following up duties as producer to Guy Ritchie and his decidedly Ritchie-esque debut 'Layer Cake' with something that resolutely does not feature guns, gangsters, swearing and shell suits. The change of direction is quite pleasant.

The plot, in a nutshell, involves a quest by young idealist Tristan (Cox) to retrieve a fallen star, as a token of his love for Victoria (Miller), from an enchanted kingdom whose boundary borders his village. Also in pursuit of the star are a band of fratricidal princely brothers (their numbers including Jason Flemyng and Rupert Everett) hell-bent on killing each to secure their ascension to the throne, and narcissistic witch Lamia (Pfeiffer, at her best in ages) who wants to take the heart of the star for its powers of youthful reinvigoration.

Ah yes, the star itself. Upon falling from the heavens, it takes human form, that of Yvaine (Claire Danes), a young woman who vacillates between dreamy romanticism and acidic stroppiness. It's giving nothing away to say that Tristan finds her first and that romance eventually blossoms - it's what happens along the way that counts.

Despite a few contrivances and coincidences, 'Stardust' emerges as a fun, frothy concoction, its occasional moments of the macabre giving the production a bit of weight. It's not quite a masterpiece (maybe one day we'll get a Gaiman adaptation that truly captures the flavour of Gaiman's uncosseted imagination), but it's well worth your time, if for no other reason than de Niro's hilarious, flamboyant turn as a camp, cross-dressing sky pirate.

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