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The Man in the Iron Mask

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Man in the Iron Mask

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons
Director: Randall Wallace
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 132 Minutes
Release Date: March 1998
Genres: Action, Drama

*Also starring: Gerard Depardieu, John Malkovich, Gabriel Byrne, Anne Parillaud, Peter Sarsgaard

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

That there's nothing new under the sun certainly applies to "The Man in the Iron Mask," given a picturesque treatment by Randall Wallace in his directorial debut. More often than not, a theme in a given movie will bear a biblical prototype. The key event in "The Man in the Iron Mask" could have come right out of Samuel, Chapter 11, describing a sleepless night of King David who, strolling on the roof of his palace, looked out over the city and noticed a woman of unusual beauty taking her evening bath. Told she was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, David sent for her, slept with her, and got her pregnant. David wrote a letter with instructions to put Uriah at the front of the hottest part of the battle with the Ammonites and then to pull back and leave him to die. Uriah was killed along with other Israeli soldiers. Those with political power get the women, though, of course, they never know whether the affection which the females bestow on them is for the crown or for themselves.

In this adaptation of the story by Alexander Dumas, when King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio) of France, like his counterpart in ancient Israel, sets eyes upon the fair Christine (Judith Godreche), seduces her and sends her boy friend Raoul to die. What makes that the determining event in the tale is that this malicious act leads to a demand for vengeance by Raoul's father, Athos (John Malkovich), and generates a final split between D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), who has remained a Musketeer pledged to the service of the king, and his now-retired colleagues Athos, Aramis (Jeremy Irons) and Porthos (Gerard Depardieu).

"The Man in the Iron Mask" is a narrative of lust, romance, battle and intrigue pitting the loyalty of the leader of the king's guards, D'Artagnan, against the justifiable hate of his former comrades-in-arms. Believing his oath to be sacrosanct, D'Artagnan refuses to break ranks with the man who succeeded good king Louis XIII, despite his lord's contempt for the starving populace and scorn for the most intimate relationships of his loyal subjects. Once Raoul has been sent to his death at the front in a war with the Dutch, director Wallace focuses on the mysterious man in the iron mask, a hapless victim of the king's justice who has been sentenced to spend his life in the Bastille, head affixed with a metal cover sealed in with a locked, overlaid encasement. We learn the identity of the eponymous victim in due course but for those who have never read the classic comic, far be it from any critic to reveal the secret.

Though this version of Dumas's adventurous melodrama is played straight, there is no absence of humor, both desired and unintended, with Depardieu supplying the occasional comic relief. The most ludicrous of the former musketeers, Porthos (Depardieu), suffers the fate of many senior citizens and those approaching the age: he feels useless, unable even to "straighten his sword" when in the hay with three women, and intent on suicide. Aramis, a priest who is looked upon by his comrades as overly pious, has designs on the throne that go beyond his priestly duties while Athos is hell bent on overthrowing the monarch and replacing him with a kinder and gentler man.

Like others of the genre, this swashbuckler is awash with dazzling costumes whose display reaches a climax in a masquerade ball, which features each member of the court dressed in evening best with one arm on his partner, the other supporting a mask. Costume designer James Acheson, working with an ample budget, pulls out the stops with an array of extravagent threads particularly those who flatter the king's trim body, while production designer Anthony Pratt, filming exclusively in France, sets most of the action in a studio on the outskirts of Paris. But costumes and design hardly make a movie: this "Man in the Iron Mask" is disappointingly short on swordplay, the sort of action exploited so remarkably by actors of past decades like Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Featuring dialogue which is at worst wooden and at best somewhat short of inspiring, "The Man in the Iron Mask" is unlikely to excite the teens who will turn out in force to see their hearthrob, Leonardo DiCaprio but will find him to be more effete than regal in the role of the Sun King. Gabriel Byrne and John Malkovich are fine as former associates in the King's Royal Guard who are now at odds with each other, but the Dumas classic is given routine treatment by its all-star cast.

A swashbuckling tale like "The Man in the Iron Mask" was an obvious choice for a Hollywood movie and, in fact, has been tried several times before in the guise of "The Three Musketeers." Rowland V. Lee directed a dull version in 1935, Allan Dwan used Don Ameche as D'Artagnan in 1939, George Sidney highlighted Lana Turner and Gene Kelly in 1948, Richard Lesler helmed a tongue-in-cheek version in 1974 starring Richard Chamberlain, and Stephen Herek used Charlie in his 1993 escapade with lots of action and bright Austrian settings. "The Man in the Iron Mask" could have been better with a more authentic setting, using French actors, the French language, and far more action. Though director Wallace moves along at breakneck speed, not hesitating to distract the performers every few minutes with a new episode, the movie has the feel of a labored historical drama when it should seeth with cries of revenge and death to the tyrant.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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