All eyes will be on him and, to the certain satisfaction of his new legion of fans, the man of the moment, Leonardo DiCaprio, delivers a wonderful double star turn in “The Man in the Iron Mask.” An unusually sober and serious-minded telling of Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale, this handsome costumer is routinely made and comes up rather short in boisterous excitement. But the compensations of an involving old-fashioned narrative and, above all, a magnetic and enjoyable cast go a long way toward making this an agreeable middle-of-the-road entertainment. DiCaprio’s presence assures a strong opening, and it will be interesting to see how far the film can travel in the wake of “Titanic.”
Screen adaptations of Dumas pere have generally been rollicking swashbucklers marked by manly humor and devil-may-care derring-do; Richard Lester’s two “Musketeer” films perhaps epitomize the wittily irreverent approach that works best for modern audiences, while “The Man in the Iron Mask” adaptations include Allan Dwan’s spirited 1929 Douglas Fairbanks vehicle, James Whale’s solid 1939 outing crowned by a scintillating double performance from Louis Hayward, Mike Newell’s well-received 1977 TV adaptation with Richard Chamberlain, and William Richert’s negligible low-budget indie earlier this year.
Present telling of the story centering on a barbarous king of France, his noble twin brother and the aging musketeers, which reps the directorial debut of “Braveheart” scenarist Randall Wallace, gets off to a worrisome start with a barrage of crude anatomical humor, involving the gamy roisterer Porthos (Gerard Depardieu), aimed directly at a ’90s teen sensibility. Tone remains uncertain for the first reel or two, and the unmeshed, all-over-the-map accents of the American, English, Irish and French thesps help pic to dig itself further into a little hole.
But once DiCaprio, resplendent in his regal finery, almost single-handedly hoists the film above ground, these concerns fall by the wayside as the pull of high-level intrigue and melodrama take hold. In Wallace’s liberal reworking of the material, the gears of treachery and revenge are set in motion when young King Louis XIV becomes enamored of the beautiful Christine (Judith Godreche) and , in order to clear the field for himself, sends her ardent suitor Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard) away to the front and certain death. When Raoul is, in fact, killed, Louis earns the undying enmity of the boy’s father, the former faithful musketeer Athos (John Malkovich).
Athos is far from alone in his hatred for Louis. In fact, most of France is in a state of unrest over the king’s silly wars, which result in nearly all produce being sent off to feed the soldiers rather than the citizens. The Jesuits are in the forefront of the rebellion, and the cruel, heartless Louis orders his trusted priest, Aramis (Jeremy Irons), another former musketeer, to seek out and kill their ringleader. Louis counts most of all on D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), yet another ex-musketeer and the head of the king’s guard, to protect him and keep him informed; what he doesn’t know is that his most loyal subject is also the secret lover of his mother, Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud).
With conditions quickly becoming intolerable, Aramis calls together his former colleagues to propose a plan to change the course of French history. D’Artagnan sticks by his king and drops out, but Athos and Porthos join in an ingenious plot in which they spirit out of prison a man who, for six years, has lived in a cell with his head encased in a locked iron mask. The man is named Philippe and is, in fact, the younger twin brother of the present King Louis.
Seeking to achieve a revolution without bloodshed by abducting the tyrannical Louis and imperceptibly replacing him on the throne with Philippe, Aramis and his cohorts attempt to train the shell-shocked young man in proper regal behavior. But when the switch is successfully achieved during a costume ball, they are quickly found out by the observant D’Artagnan. Several changes of fortune later, the graying musketeers suit up in their old uniforms for a last “One for all, all for one” hurrah against the king and his younger musketeers in a final effort to replace an evil monarch with a noble one.
Despite the plot’s wealth of incident, all of this proves somewhat less rousing and inspiring than one might hope for, due to Wallace’s mundane approach to action and a lack of tension in the storytelling. On the other hand, his essential seriousness adds some unexpected weight to some of the work’s central themes, notably the special nature of father-son bonds; the effects of advancing years on one’s abilities and priorities, and the comparative worth of oaths and loyalty to God, state, ideals, family and friends.
Most of all, however, the actors make the film a pleasure to watch. Sporting very long hair, DiCaprio is a splendid vision as the ruthless libertine king and , without overdoing the villainy, creates an indelible impression of absolute, unregenerate evil ruled by an iron will. By contrast, his Philippe is kind, sensitive and touchingly unformed, a lovely and subtly drawn opposite to his brother.
Adding plenty of star power of their own, Irons, Malkovich, Depardieu and Byrne form a disparate bunch, both in terms of iconography and acting styles, but are fine fun to watch together. Irons displays more energy than he’s shown onscreen in a while, Malkovich delivers a well-focused change-of-pace perf in a sympathetic role, Depardieu has no trouble enacting the buffoon of the group who is concerned with his dwindling physical powers, while Byrne brings welcome gravity to his emotionally and morally conflicted character.
Making the most of its French locations and, especially, its many scenes lensed at the Chateau de Fontainebleau, pic has been decked out in fine fashion by lenser Peter Suschitzky, production designer Anthony Pratt, costume designer James Acheson and composer Nick Glennie-Smith.