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Man In The Iron Mask, The (1998)USA 1998
Directed by Randall Wallace
Running time 132 minutes
Whilst James Whale’s 1939 version of The Man In The Iron Mask was not a good film, it is infinitely preferable to this take on the classic Alexandre Dumas adventure romance about twin brothers (Leonard DiCaprio playing both parts) battling for the throne of France. Whereas the black-and-white studio-bound version with its manly heroes and nasty villains has a certain, albeit limited, quaint charm, Randall Wallace’s version is remarkably charmless.
If the bottom line is that Hollywood should stay away from 17th century France (it would seem that the success of 1995's Restoration, set in 17th century England, emboldened it), this film has more than its fair share of shortcomings. One is that it simply looks ugly. It’s not just Peter Suschitzky’s messy cinematography which lurches from murky to pellucid and back again, but the tacky look of the Bastille sets in particular (the mask itself looks as if it was made of polystyrene, which it was) and the clumsy wigs and make-up, which combine to destroy and illusion of time and place (something which the earlier film in its own limited way did).
All the otherwise fine cast come off badly in this respect with Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich looking faintly ridiculous as musketeers and Gérard Depardieu looking like he has staggered off the set of an Asterix and Obelix movie. As D'Artagnan Gabriel Byrne looks like he is on the way to a costume party and the sight of Hugh Laurie in a perruque is a ridiculous sight to behold. Judith Godreche as the romantic interest is supposed to be a lissome beauty who inflames Louis' concupiscence but when Suschitzky’s camera cuts to the first close-up of her the results are near-laughable. Frankly, DiCaprio is prettier. And what about DiCaprio? If he took to the part of Shakespeare’s star-cross'd lover in Romeo + Juliet two years earlier with understandable enthusiasm, here he barely even gets warm, largely standing around with seemingly no idea what to do. In Whale's film Louis Hayward did a good job of distinguishing between his two characters but the only way you know them apart here is by their actions.
Ultimately however the problem comes down to Wallace. Better known as a writer with a lot of TV work on his C.V. and the occasional feature (1995’s Braveheart was his moment in the sun) how he got to debut as a director with this is a mystery (he was co-producer so maybe he put his money into it). With a large cast, a huge wardrobe and lavish location shooting this was not cheap film-making. Wallace manages to fumble scene after scene with weak compositions, poor framing, hackneyed ideas and an indecisive tone that at times approaches the Monty Pythonesque.
Then there’s his script which has absolutely no feel for the period. Indeed the dialogue is incongrously 20th century (to take one glaring example, at one point Aramis explains to D’Artagnan and the other musketeers how he going to save France by switching Philippe and Louis and Athos exclaims “That’s your plan?!”). Presumably trying to give the film a modern sophistication Wallace also tampers with the logic of the Dumas story but only manages to rob the film of any dramatic impetus when not, as with the scene in which Aramis smuggles Philippe out of the Bastille by disguising himself as a very fat monk, descending into silliness.
Wallace tries to invest the whole shebang with good old-fashioned swashbuckling heroism and courtly grandeur but the result is far from good, let alone either heroic or grand. It's just awful.