Review: 'Stardust' shines brightly

Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), coming of age and smitten with the gorgeous Victoria (Sienna Miller), falls victim to the same counter-intuition that has salmon swimming upstream (God’s living parable), male black widows just dying to lose their virginity, and Chihuahuas hitting on great Danes.

He lives in the pre-industrial England village of Wall, so named for the stone perimeter that surrounds and marks its border with Stormhold, a parallel universe of enchantment and magic.

As Tristan comes a callin,’ helplessly courting the young lady’s affection, the couple beholds a falling star. He promises to retrieve the once heavenly object, and return it to her in exchange for her hand. To accomplish this he must brave a journey beyond the wall into the world of the unknown, an extremely risky investment with questionable returns at best.

With a bit of unexpected assistance, he reaches his destination. Lying in a large crater, he finds an attractive woman, dressed in a long white silken gown. The star, named Yvaine (Claire Danes) is a bit put out and grumpy, her movement impeded by a painful limp from the rough landing on Earth.

The likelihood of such a treasure reaching Earth without attracting the attention of others, even more misguided in their motives than Tristan, is slim to none. Unanticipated challenges loom before the chivalrous young man, with nefarious and daunting competitors from sources beyond comprehension. His return trip will prove a bit more difficult.

Most formidable of the challenges is a triad of witches, hags aged beyond calculation, who want to capture the star so they can retrieve their youth. Outmaneuvering the other two, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) receives the last bit of their current stash of youth restorative, temporarily returning her to the prime of life and amplifying her powers.

Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) is after a gem Yvaine brought, which will legitimize his succession to the throne. But first he must survive his brothers, also vying to be king, as they employ various schemes to eliminate each other.

In one of the more ingenious designs of the movie, as each sibling meets his violent end, he joins those previously murdered, forming a joyful Greek chorus of ghosts, providing light-hearted commentary on the progress of the survivors.

Lamia, her powers waning, begins to visibly re-age. Pfeiffer’s portrayal of this malevolent and desperate practitioner of dark magic provides testament of the actor’s breadth. With her character battling time as well as Tristan, she provides a virtuoso performance.

Likewise, Robert De Niro, given the opportunity to stretch as Captain Shakespeare, contributes an inspired and refined bit of levity. The pirate-like captain and his motley crew, flying a zeppelin-powered sky-schooner, accidentally encounters Tristan, who with the star in tow finds himself in a difficult situation.

Every would-be fairytale hero deserves a mentor, who even if sometimes flawed, is always a font of wisdom. Shakespeare fills the bill. At first glance fearsome, he takes the two travelers into his quarters, revealing himself as a somewhat effeminate and closeted cross-dresser. But he also knows how to handle a sword, a skill he bequeaths to Tristan.

This carefully drawn and directed work defies comparison in style and execution. The idea, adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, adheres and departs from the original material in a measured and insightful manner. A richly layered story, it is nonetheless accessible.

We never outgrow fairy tales, and “Stardust” provides an opportunity to revisit these imaginary realms, which ironically, often have more rhyme and reason than real life.

Grade: B+

Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by all of Examiner's film critics.

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