Cyberlizard goes to the movies

The Man in the Iron Mask

Starring Leonardo diCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gabriel Byrne and Gerard Depardieu

The "Three Musketeers" of Alexander Dumas have often been processed for the film factory, so much so (bearing in mind some of the jokey seventies and eighties versions) that when I first saw the cover of this video, my initial reaction was "not another rush job to convert an old movie into a star vehicle." Happily on this occasion I was proven wrong. Man in the Iron Mask is simply superb.

The film

I confess myself at a disadvantage here, having not read the book by Dumas, and to reveal too much of the plot would be to destroy a large part of the film. Then again, many filmgoers may already know the story. Briefly, the action takes place in France 1662, not long after the young Louis XIV has ascended the throne. The musketeers Aramis (Irons), Porthos (Depardieu) and Athos (Malkovich) are now retired or in other occupations: Aramis is a priest, Porthos pining for his younger days of revelry, and Athos bidding farewell to his only son who wishes to marry his true love Christine. D'Artagnan, their old comrade, is still in service, guarding the young king as head of the musketeers under a younger captain. In his official capacity, however, he finds himself at odds with his old friends as it becomes clear that the licentious Louis has his eye on Christine and will stop at nothing to win her. Meanwhile, the people of Paris are starving due to Louis' policy of storing up the food reserves for his army, and the Jesuits are opposed to the king's policy of war. It is this opposition that leads Louis to charge Aramis, although a priest himself, to find the General of the Jesuit Order and kill him. In the meantime there is the mystery of who the unknown prisoner in the iron mask is who languishes in solitary confinement in the Bastille.

This film is a rare combination, a good swashbuckler with depth of character, a decent script and fine acting. Perhaps the biggest revelation is diCaprio, whom I had been tempted to write off as just a teenage heartthrob actor following his role in Titanic. In fact he excels in two roles in this film, as the arrogant and vicious Louis and his humbler but nobler brother Philippe. The lad really can act! Irons is superb as the clever and occasionally manipulative Aramis, a musketeer-turned-Jesuit with all the strengths and weaknesses of that order, not to mention the burden of a guilty secret. Gabriel Byrne is nobility itself as D'Artagnan, also harbouring a terrible secret but determined not to fail in his sworn duty, while Malkovich turns in a fine part as a grieving father who takes a paternal attitude to Philippe. Depardieu's role is more comic, but he also invokes sympathy as an ageing man trying to come to terms with the fact that he cannot indulge in the debaucheries of his youth. The supporting cast are also good (Edward Atterton as the younger musketeer captain trying to emulate his leader, Peter Sarsgaard as the doomed Raoul, Ann Parillaut as the Queen Mother and Judith Godreche as the remorseful Christine) while Hugh Laurie and David Lowe have tragicomic roles as the capricious king's chief advisors, reminding us that the days of monarchist absolutism were not that different from the courts of certain present-day dictators. Many of the outdoor scenes were shot in France, and the Versailles scenes with the summer balls are a feast. Deeply moving and thrilling, the film doesn't go in for mindless violence but keeps up the pressure on both the emotions and the adrenalin.