The subtitle of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, the illustrated novel the film is based on, is Being a Romance Within the Realms of Faerie, and is totally without irony.
Such stories, I suppose, are a respite for those who find the world outside the magical kingdom a chore. I don't believe in "faeries" and have a tremendous disrespect for the entire fantasy genre. I saw Pan's Labyrinth and Mirrormask (also based on a book by Gaiman) in packed houses and felt lost among the hoard of fairytale-and-wonderment fans. What was it that they saw in these movies? What a waste of time these movies were, when they offered no insight into real-world issues and left us with the insulting moral of "Use your imagination!"
So who knew I would enjoy Stardust? It rises just enough above the genre to not leave one embarrassed for having watched a "faerie romance." Stardust has its faults—a relentless score of nothing but swelling violins and a typical, well, "faerie romance" plot—but it is buoyed by a parade of notable British actors playing exactly to their strengths.
With Sienna Miller as a shallow beauty, the makers have something else on their minds besides faerie romance. Stardust's humour is dry and subtle; you have to know who Miller is to understand the irony of her casting. And its story never over-reaches. Miller sends a lovesick boy to fetch a fallen star for her (Miller thinks she is worthy of a star—get it?!), but the star has actually manifested itself as Claire Danes, and romance ensues between boy and star as they make their way back to Miller. The boy-meets-fallen-star plot all takes place in, (where else?) a magic kingdom, which butts up against the border of the normal, human town where Sienna Miller lives, a plebe like you and me. That indicates Stardust has as much to say about our world as it does an imaginary one.
The producers of Becoming Jane have made the kind of imaginary world I could happily slip into: Jane Austen is the heroine of a Jane Austen movie. Real and imaginary worlds collide!
Becoming Jane is a loosely factual account of a romance Austen is purported to have had. Austen, played by Anne Hathaway, seeks to live by her pen, but her family hopes for her a wealthy husband whose fortune will allow her to live in comfort. The conflict comes to a head when Jane falls in love with a penniless Irish rogue (played by James McAvoy), and the usual Austen romance is turned on its ear.
The film has some potent insight regarding love for money. Jane's parents respect her lofty ideals but make a convincing argument for a fiscally fortuitous match, and Jane eventually does too, when the concerns of family and economic realities weigh down on her love for the McAvoy character. When things go badly for Jane, the film makes her hurt palpable.
Disappointing is the failure of Becoming Jane to escape the hallmarks of Jane Austen adaptations of the last 15 years: the misty shots of English countryside, the loaded glances, the sexually charged ballroom dance. It riffs directly on the 2006 version Pride and Prejudice with handheld camera-work laying bare the actors' tense faces. The point is obvious; these characters can't say what they feel. We get it.
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