There is an undeniable attraction to the world of Louis XIV, the "Sun King"—can anything in history be more filmic? I mean, besides outer space? The deified reverence France's subjects had for their king was rivaled only by their affections for God, and even those could be pushed aside for a good masquerade ball. The flowing uniforms, the coats of arms, the cannons going off into charging cavalry—really, you've got to give a movie like this points for style, regardless of stuff like "dialogue" and "plot."
Fortunately for us, MGM hired three musketeers not just in uniform, but in unique acting ability; John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons and Gerard Depardieu star as Dumas' fabled 17th-century heroes, and they obviously had a fun time doing it. If you slept through sixth grade like I did, the story of "The Man in the Iron Mask" goes a little bit like this: Long ago, Louis XIV's mother had twins, and to insure France's domestic harmony, one of the boys was taken away. Kept alive by dint of the sanctity of royal blood, he is fettered inside an iron mask that conceals his identity and is imprisoned on an island far away from the action. Meanwhile, the other twin grows up to be a total pain in the ass—he has no honor, destroys lives and rules with a terrifying arbitrariness. So our three musketeers, alternately thwarted and aided by their old pal D'Artagnan, are going to swap kings for the better model. The beautiful thing about the movie is that it always seems to be winking at the audience—they don't expect you to take a story so ludicrous all that seriously. Malkovich is especially wonderful as Athos, managing to be both genuinely bereaved and totally sarcastic depending on the scene. Depardieu is at home as a wine-guzzling Lotharian Porthos, and Irons provides the depth as the pious fighter Aramis. The only person who seems uncomfortable with his role as a heavy is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is too mean-spirited to be one twin, and too mousy to be the other. Thank god Gabriel Byrne is around as D'Artagnan, his steely honor giving the movie a moral structure it could easily have forgotten.
Let's not get too esoteric here; this movie is rancorously cheesy. With overstated themes right out of the Cliff Notes (the love of country vs. the independent passion of the heart) and an ending revelation that would induce groans even out of the most sweepingly emotional audience members, this thing ain't gonna win any Nobel Peace Prizes. But still, muskets and swords? Tight bodices and swooning courtesans? Royal balls and dashing musketeers? You could do a lot worse on a weekend afternoon.
Return to Ian's movie reviews.