Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer All for Naught

By Susan Ellis

MARCH 23, 1998:  Randall Wallace’s go at the Musketeer story, The Man in the Iron Mask, kicks off with Gerard Depardieu’s Porthos bursting in on Jeremy Irons’ Aramis and spewing references to “tits” and being “hung like a donkey.” He then caps off his show with a loud fart. All of this is within the first three minutes or so. You half expect Porthos and Aramis to go round up Athos (John Malkovich) so that the three of them can ditch gloomy France and head to Daytona for spring break.

And while this intro makes you dread the next 120 minutes, you begin to look back on those first minutes fondly, wishing that there was a bit more swash in these swashbucklers.

Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, The Man in the Iron Mask is set in France in 1660. The king, Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young and indifferent ruler. His citizenry is starving so that his soldiers will be well-fed for exercises in conquering other nations. When they complain, he offers them spoiling food, which pushes them to the brink of revolt.

However devoid of compassion, Louis XIV does have his loyal, brightly caped band of soldiers, the Musketeers, led by the respected D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne). They will keep the public at bay while the king calls on former Musketeer-turned-priest Aramis for a more permanent solution. Louis orders Aramis to find and kill an unknown Jesuit priest who has been stirring up the people of France. Aramis promises to do so, but since Aramis is the Jesuit priest, he opts for another, more complicated plan.

Gathering Porthos, Athos, and D’Artagnan, Aramis reveals that there is man who’s been locked in the Bastille for six years, a man whose identity is a mystery to most because of the iron mask he wears. That man is Phillippe (also played by DiCaprio), Louis’ twin who was spirited away as a newborn and then locked in the mask when Louis was crowned. Aramis lays out his plot to replace Louis with Phillippe, with only the parties involved aware of the switch. Athos, who blames Louis for his part in his son’s death, is all for it, as is Porthos, who, feeling a little long in the tooth, seeks the excitement of danger. D’Artagnan, however, is devoted to the king and will have none of it.

From left: Leonardo DiCaprio, Gabriel Byrne, and Edward Atterton

The exploits of the Musketeers have been presented in film many times. And Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for Braveheart, knows a thing or two about the men-and-war-and-valor equation. But Braveheart had the ultra-macho Mel Gibson, who no doubt reveled in the part of a crusader. The Man in the Iron Mask, however, has five chief players, some of whom don’t seem quite as convinced or as convincing, in so much as we are to be told that they are the greatest thing ever to hold an épée. Byrne and Depardieu fill their parts all right, but DiCaprio and Malkovich sometimes have trouble fitting their mouths around the lines they’re made to say. Plus, there is a need for more action, more of that legendary swordplay. There is one peculiar scene in which the skinny DiCaprio, while in the mask, takes up a sword so that he looks like a Q-Tip fighting for his life.

As they say, it’s all for one and one for all, but how many will be for The Man in the Iron Mask?

Ian Holm in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter.

Atom Egoyan is not a feel-good-movie sort of director. He is, however, a director who knows how to build a mood. More precisely, he specializes in a bleakness and hopelessness that makes its way under a viewer’s skin. Sometimes, his attempts misfire, as in his last film, the schoolgirl-stripper piece Exotica, which was just creepy. In his latest film, The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan is more effective. The feelings he draws up aren’t from the disgust of voyeurism, but rather from a deep pity.

Ian Holm stars as Mitchell Stephens, a personal-injury lawyer, who has made his way into a small town wrecked with sorrow after a schoolbus accident claimed the lives of many of the town’s children. He is there to enlist clients for a lawsuit, to find blame for an event that has no reason. Stephens’ approach is to offer the parents an outlet for their anger. He gets down on all fours, if that’s what it takes. Stephens, whose daughter is killing herself with drugs, is suffering too. But it’s hard to trust that he is connecting with the parents through this when he happily notes that one of the dead children was an adopted Indian (“Judges like adopted Indian boys”).

The Sweet Hereafter is something of an emotional investment, and the last half hour particularly seems to drag. But it’s worth toughing it out. Egoyan gives out the story in increments, switching between before and after the accident. He shows the victims and their families just (film) moments away from the tragedy, offering up comparisons of their lives. Some remain, shaken but oddly the same. Others still find a dignity, a new voice to straighten their paths.

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