This is how the last “movie fight” on the facebook page ended (like it like, now please), “Stardust” won by a landslide, and so here is my in depth analysis! I hope you enjoy it!
“Stardust” is a 2007 movie by Matthew Vaughn, adapted from the 1997 novel by Neil Gaiman, (illustrated by Charles Vess).
It is certainly enjoyable and does generally a good job in creating fairy tale, picaresque atmospheres reminiscent of fairy tale classic and many other influences, such as “The Princess Bride” (1987) or “The Wizard of Oz” (1939),
as well as several Shakespearean works (“The Tempest” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” come to mind) – maybe acknowledged in the Robert De Niro’s character Captain Shakespeare.
The sumptuous casting does its part in making the film a feast for any audience: eyes and ears are definitely entertained by the stellar special effects and the acting.
Actually, while the main performances are solid enough, where the movie really shines is in the many secondary roles that populate its firmament (eheh, ok, enough with the star puns): when you have names like Robert De Niro, Ricky Gervais, Ian McKellen, Peter O’Toole, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller and Henry Cavill as supporting roles or cameos, you know you are in for a treat.
However, after a closer analysis and two-three views, I started to realize that the movie adaptation (written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn) used a bit of a heavy hand in twisting some of the excellent source material into a more Hollywood-ready, easy to consume format.
The movie script follows the “Monomyth” almost in a formulaic way, as we will see. As a result, it’s a bit predictable and some parts feel unnecessary. The original novel is much more subtle, ambiguous and well… Gaiman-esque, while still following classic story structures.
In this post I will be mostly discussing the movie.
There are many articles around describing the many differences between movie and book (an excellent one is here, by Radhil), but I will not cover the topic. So whatever is your favorite – by the way, I prefer the book – this post is about the film.
Tristan (Charlie Cox): a young man, dreamer, he lives in the small village of Wall, in Victorian England. His problem is that he tries very hard to live fulfilling other people’s expectations.
Yvaine (Claire Danes): she is, technicall speaking, a star. She falls from the sky and assumes human form, but her quest is to become really human.
Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her sisters: the typical evil witches you would expect in a fairy tale. They draw their magic powers and eternal youth by eating stars alive. A little curiosity: “Lamia” was a half-snake creature in the Greek mythology, cursed to eat children, and the term was used to indicate a generic “bogey” creature.
Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) and his brothers: they compete to inherit the kingdom of Stormhold. To win, they have to find the magic ruby that Yvaine holds.
Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro): has a reputation as a ruthless pirate captain, but deep inside his chest beats a much more gentle heart.
Una (Kate Magowan) and Dunstan (Nathaniel Parker): mother and father to Tristan, respectively. Una lives in Stormhold, and only met Dunstan one night, seventeen years ago. It was enough, apparently.
Victoria (Sienna Miller) and Humphrey (Henry Cavill): a young couple, pride of the middle class in the village of Wall. A classic love triangle: Tristan is in love with Victoria, but Humphrey has gone all the way up to Ipswich to buy her an engagement ring. It’s hard to beat that.
There are also other memorable, secondary characters, the King (Peter O’Toole), The Guard (David Kelly), Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill), Ferdy (Ricky Gervais), not to mention all the brothers of Septimus, but for the sake of brevity I will not mention them further.
Let’s see the story structure. Classic three acts.
Act One: This side of the Wall.
It opens as the story of Tristan, a young man who lives in England in the Victorian Age – a time dominated by moral standards, middle class respectability and reputation. He grew up in Wall, a village aptly situated near a… big wall (duh), that separates two worlds: England and
Tristan is in love with Victoria, who could be the perfect leader of the local cheerleading team. To keep with the stereotype, she seems more interested in social status and money, rather than in learning about herself and the world out there. But love is blind, and so seems Tristan, who is willing to do anything to impress her.
In a typical “I want to see the mountains!” scene, Tristan is also introduced as a visionary, not satisfied with the the narrow minded place where he lives. The fact that Ipswich can be considered an exotic destination baffles him. He feels destined to do much more!
This is a typical setting for the beginning of a Heroic Journey.
The topic is also discussed with his father – who acts as Herald and sets the story in motion – and for the first time the theme of the story is introduced: truth lies beyond appearances.
Tristan should not feel limited by his actual economic condition or his job. He works in a shop, but he is not destined to be a shop assistant forever.
In a reckless decision, he decides to capture a fallen star as engagement gift for Victoria, and for that he needs to travel to the near kingdom of Stormhold.
Easier said, than done. For that, he needs to cross the Wall – but nobody crosses the wall. A Guardian ensures that.
Again, this is a quite literal representation of the Guardian of the Threshold: social conventions, fears, inner doubts – anything that stops us from overcoming our everyday life and limits, and adventure into what awaits in the outside world.
Defeated, Tristan goes back to his father (refusal of the call), and he receives the first reveal: he was actually born in Stormhold!
Dunstan also gives Tristan the magic items he found in his baby cradle: a silver chain, a glass flower, and a letter from his mother (wrapped around a magic Babylon candle).
This is the typical “Acquisition” stage of fairy tales, in which the protagonist receives magic items that will help him in his quest. The letter – besides being a very useful exposition device – establishes the connection between the young man and his mother, and his potential as future Hero of the Two Worlds.
Tristan becomes convinced that there is more to him than a local shop boy. He decides to leave for his adventure. Holds the magic candle, thinks of the star and… goes!
Crossing this threshold into the magic world ends the First Act.
Act Two: Stormhold.
We are introduced to the place where Yvaine (the star) has fallen.
With a flash back sequence, we are also informed that the king of Stormhold is about to die of old age, and he is passing the crown to one of his sons (he had seven, plus one daughter), precisely he who will recover the ruby of the royal sigil.
Yvaine was actually hit by the magic ruby when she was in her star form, and that’s the reason for her falling from the sky. She holds the stone as a necklace now.
But there is more. Another group of villains is introduced: the witch Lamia and her sisters, who also want the fallen star.
They need to carve her heart and eat it (ugh!) to keep their magic powers, and in particular their eternal youth and beauty. Understandable. Nobody ever said black magic was a clean business.
So, the story is set in motion. There are three parties in play:
– Tristan and Yvaine, travelling back to England (the Babylon candle is almost all burned up and can’t be used for such a long trip);
– the King’s sons – in particular Septimus, the most ambitious and ruthless – who need the magic ruby to inherit the crown;
– Lamia and her sisters, who need to kill Yvaine to remain powerful and young.
The narrative tension is made particularly interesting by the nature of the conflict. Not a duel but a “triel”, as in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It’s gripping, original, and unusual for a fairy tale.
Anyway, back in the impact crater, it doesn’t take long for Tristan to realize that Yvaine is the star. To be honest, it takes just a second, in another quick “huh?” moment.
He is a smart lad with an open mind attitude, after all. So what is the first thing to do, when finding a girl with supernatural powers deep in a crater? But to bind her with a magic chain, of course (Yvaine, despite her superpowers, only protests feebly with a passive aggressive comment), go figure why.
Their journey begins.
Their “Road of Trials” is represented by the Trap Hut – Lamia uses her magic to create an enchanted Roadside Inn where the protagonists can find shelter from the terrible weather and rest after the journey. The witch plans to lure the two young people inside, kill them and go home to celebrate with her sisters.
Easy enough, and initially the plan seems to work.
Yvaine is lured into a warm bedroom where Lamia plans to kill her after a massage (???).
At the same time, Tristan is also in mortal danger: he is offered a (poisoned) cup of wine, to recover from the cold outside.
The intervention of a unicorn (yes, a unicorn) breaks the illusion and a furious battle follows with a lot of green magic flames.
All hope seems lost, except… Tristan has the idea to use the last bit of the Babylon candle, and go “home”. They manage to escape from the trap, leaving a furious Lamia behind.
Problem is, the two youths had a different understanding of “home”. Tristan wanted to go back to Wall, while Yvaine thought about the night sky. So, they end up in between – on a cloud in the sky! Only to be rescued by a very surprised group of lightning hunters, something very similar to a pirate crew, only their ship can fly.
This section is just a page or so in the novel, but it becomes a central part of the movie. Captain Shakespeare is played but Robert De Niro, nonetheless, and is one of the best characters in the film adaptation.
This is the central part of the story. After the deadly battle (the Dark Cave), it’s the moment for our protagonists to reflect about what just happened, and learn some important life lessons.
In a typical “Belly of the Whale” setting – the ship’s cargo hold – Tristan and Yvaine face their doubts, while having a personal and quite revealing conversation.
They also talk about their initial expectations, before the adventure started. Yvaine used to be just the spectator of other people’s life stories.
While Tristan confesses to have been too naive. He greatly underestimated how this “bring a fallen star back home” story would play out.
But… there is an unexpected Reward coming from facing the adversities together: a bond is forming between them. Yvaine is the first to say it out loud.
He just doesn’t get it.
And here we get to the central point in which the theme is reinstated: Tristan is looking for his real self in this quest, and Yvaine helps him to see it clearly. Things are not what they seem.
And people are defined by their actions, not by their starting conditions in life, jobs or economic situation.
And a little teaching moment from Yvaine, who maybe instills a doubt in Tristan’s mind about the nature of true love.
But enough of that. Time for De Niro to absolutely steal the scene with his memorable Queer Pirate, Captain Shakespeare.
Really one of the most outstanding characters here. He is well developed, and gets a full development arc. His problem is to keep the masquerade of a fearsome “ship captain” – he inherited the ship from his father and promised to keep the family business running – while his true aspirations would have been very different.
Ok, probably not the most original and the deepest of backstories here, but let’s appreciate that there is one.
This allows the characters to have another conversation on living to fulfill society’s expectations versus pursuing their own visions and dreams. It’s another way to intend the main theme of the story, and a learning moment for Tristan.
In short, Shakespeare plays a perfect Mentor role for both protagonists. The fact that he appears mid-story reflects how the young people are sometimes cast into adult life without preparation or role models. These can appear later, but it’s their responsibility to find them.
Shakespeare gives Tristan a badly needed haircut and a new wardrobe, and trains him in sword fighting because you never know what you need first, nowadays.
at the same time educating Yvaine through piano and dancing lessons. He doesn’t seem too concerned about reinforcing gender roles.
But at least, he gives also some important life advice, that will be very precious to the protagonists.
The story also briefly introduces another interesting side character, the Merchant Ferdy the Fence, who will have the role of a Trickster in the unfolding events and provide some juicy comic relief.
With this “magic flight“, once again quite in the literal sense, the story proceeds towards the end of the Second Act.
Act Three: There, Back, and Back Again.
This is, in my opinion, the weakest part of the movie. It’s basically all Resolution. The many plot lines are brought together but the story suffers from a definitely overextended final battle scene, which seems more fitting for a Final Fantasy videogame, than for a Victorian fairy tale which is a coming of age story.
However, all the main characters find a satisfying closure for their arc. Let’s see how:
Captain Shakespeare receives the support of his crew, which respect him for who he is, and fully reconcile with his personality not exactly piratey (whatever that means). He was concerned about reputation (= fulfilling expectations), but finds that his mates respect him for who he really is.
Yvaine understands that love is unconditional and confesses her feelings to Tristan (although temporarily in a mouse form).
Tristan finally gets it and understands that his destiny is as big as he wants it to be, and that the love of his life shines right there, for him.
Tristan crosses back to Wall (the village) to settle the score with Victoria. He now realizes how banal and uninspiring she had been all along, and leaves her and Humphrey to live more or less happily thereafter.
It all seems settled, except it isn’t. Things get complicated.
Yvaine is looking for Tristan, but if she crosses the Wall, she will turn to dust.
Except she doesn’t get to cross the wall, because she is captured by Lamia, who takes her to her hideout where she has her special collection of heart-carving knives.
Tristan finds out, just as Septimus does (thanks to some enchanted runes that are so magical, everybody can use them after just a 5 minutes tutorial), so they all rush to the final showdown.
Yvaine lies chained to an altar (a classic), Septimus, Tristan and Lamia face each other in a decisive final battle.
And, I mean, who doesn’t like final battles? Septimus is the first to go, killed by Lamia with a very ingenious gingerbread vodoo doll. The witch then reanimates him as a zombie, probably because she knows that recycling villains help reduce carbon footprint.
What follows is a zombie swordfight duel with Tristan, completely unnecessary from the plot perspective, and then Tristan can finally face Lamia not one, but twice because at first she seems willing to let the two young lovers go. While actually she plays with them like cat and mouse.
And again, the feeling is of an overextended scene full of anti-climactic moments. There is no character development or significant choices here, it’s just like a Dark Souls boss fight: you think you killed the big bad guy, only to find out that there is another one. Yawn.
In particular, the villains are dismissed – after so much character building – in a meaningless way. Septimus dies (twice) in a duel, without getting a moment to elaborate on how his ambition was misplaced and let to so much suffering and death (his arc is completely wasted); and even worse for Lamia, who appears to have second thoughts when she considers that her sisters are dead and so much has been lost, but then brushes it all away with a cackle and turns full “evil witch” for the final showdown. A pity, because her quest for eternal youth and superficial beauty at all costs is a very meaningful cautionary tale that could have been explored more, by making a better use of these final 15 minutes.
The moment comes when all glasses shatter,
all hope seems lost, and then finally Yvaine remembers that she can fix it all because she is, after all, a celestial body with the power of a giant atomic fusion bomb.
And she has a superpower:
She does it, and reduces Lamia to sub atomic particles.
Tristan voices the question that is on everybody’s lips at this moment:
Uuuuuhm, ok. It totally works. If you say so.
Conclusion, finally: Tristan is crowned king (ah yes, in the final battle, he also finds out to be of royal descent, since his mother is really Una, the king’s only daughter), he marries Yvaine, they live a long and prosperous life together, and at the end they turn into stars.
And they lived happily thereafter. THE END.
I understand how so many people love the movie: it has all the ingredients of a classic fairy tale, a Shakespeare play, elements of a pirate story and sword and sorcery, all wrapped in one. The package is kept together by convincing acting performances, memorable and varied characters, great production value and a very solid Hollywood film structure which takes no risks.
However, that is precisely the problem, especially when compared to the highly poetic and oniric quality of the original novel. Even with its plot twists, the movie is almost too straightforward, and in looking for cinematic spectacle, it loses some of the unique and intangible qualities that make the novel so enjoyable and unique. Especially in the final part.
Neil Gaiman, master storyteller as he is, manages to follow the canons of a classic story structure (the Fairy Tale is highly codified) without getting stuck in them; on the other hand, Matthew Vaughn takes very little risks with his plot, while at the same time making abundant use of special effects and CGI.
The original story is all about finding true beauty in diversity, as unique as it is (for a very good essay on the novel, read this). In Gaiman, magic doesn’t need explosions or green fire, and still leaves us full of awe. Some of these subtleties are lost in the film version, which however remains a perfectly enjoyable story able to engage audiences of all types.