Featuring Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, Inception, Catch Me If You Can), Edward Atterton (Atherton Wing in the Firefly episode, Shindig), The Man in the Iron Mask is a film that uses characters from Alexandre Dumas’ D’Artagnan Romances, and is very loosely adapted from some plot elements of The Vicomte de Bragelonne. The film centers on the aging four musketeers (Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan) during the reign of King Louis XIV attempting to explain the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask, using a plot more closely related to the flamboyant 1929 version starring Douglas Fairbanks, The Iron Mask, and the 1939 version directed by James Whale, than the original Dumas book.
According to The New York Times review:
In the aftermath of ”Titanic,” Leonardo DiCaprio is arrogant, spoiled, vain and regal. He’s also shy, decent and noble, a pinup-ready vision of angel-faced purity. And this isn’t even in real life; it’s in an amusingly ludicrous new version of ”The Man in the Iron Mask,” which dusts off the Dumas story and gives it a definite 90’s spin. This time, when the mask comes off, the story’s glowing young hero appears to have undergone a seaweed wrap at that exceptionally punishing spa, the Bastille. And he later delivers this self-help credo: ”I wear the mask. It does not wear me.”
Though contending with a Breck-girl hairdo, an overpowering cast and royally wooden dialogue (”No, no, do not underestimate the Dutch”), Mr. DiCaprio still manages to illustrate why his appeal has lately gone global. Despite the film’s extraordinary Musketeer power, he rivets attention in practically every scene. With captivating ingenuousness, and with a physical beauty that reduces the camera to one more worshipful fan, he fares well in one of his most ill-advised film projects. Top honors in that category still go to ”Total Eclipse,” the graphic, bisexual, two-poet love story in which he played an overweeningly obnoxious Arthur Rimbaud.
There’s an echo of his Rimbaud’s narcissism in this film’s Louis XIV, a role for which Mr. DiCaprio was prepared by a 17th-century-etiquette coach. (He learned to hold his right hand behind his back, so as to appear to rule France.) This callow King is very much the brat, though the star makes him more charming than he deserves to be.
Also here, in supposed contrast, are the story’s older and wiser characters: graying, over-the-hill Musketeers presented as one-note creatures. Athos (John Malkovich) loves his son (played with shrewd Malkovich mimicry by Peter Sarsgaard). Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) is the carousing buffoon. Aramis (Jeremy Irons) is devout. D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) is his King’s loyal servant. Ready for our candy bar, Mr. DeMille.
”The Man in the Iron Mask” was written and directed by Randall Wallace with the same delicacy he brought to his ”Braveheart” screenplay, which is to say that Mr. Depardieu is found wenching and breaking wind in his very first scene. Beyond its persistent coarseness, Mr. Wallace’s story often trades yesterday’s inspiration (Dumas) for today’s (Simpson-Bruckheimer). So characters have arcs. Motivation is blunt. Third-act redemption is inevitable.
”The difficulties in our life can forge us into steel, as well as break us, and it is really our choice as to what we’ll do,” Mr. Wallace has said, summarizing the film’s spirit of self-improvement. ”It’s a question of character. It’s a question of inspiration. There is a price to pay to become great.”
Beyond that, greatness is no issue here, unless you count some of the settings used to aggrandize the story. (Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte makes a handsome Versailles.) And that story differs considerably from other versions, especially the 1939 chestnut that was long a staple of late-night television.
The swashbuckling is minimal in a film that emphasizes the boyishness of its two identical characters, Louis XIV and his brother Philippe. To keep his existence a secret, Philippe has long been imprisoned, with his face concealed by the mask of the title, which now looks vaguely like an S-and-M prop.
Once the Musketeers free Philippe (whom Mr. Wallace has said he envisioned in terms of Nelson Mandela), the film reaches what ought to be a pinnacle of kitsch as the two opposite Mr. DiCaprios square off. Nostrils flare in this overheated sequence, but the star keeps it bizarrely riveting anyhow.
For all its cheesiness, ”The Man in the Iron Mask” does let its actors visibly enjoy themselves, usually at the expense of their prior dignity. The jovial Mr. Depardieu, in particular, misses no chance to play the fool. The film’s decorative actresses, Judith Godreche and Anne Parillaud, play their roles more solemnly and with less purpose. There’s never any doubt as to who is the prettiest young thing on screen.
Principal photography began less than a year ago. And the haste with which this laborious costume drama has been slapped together is strongly apparent. Nothing here seems more perfunctory than the score by Nick Glennie-Smith, which finds peaks of cornball emotion whenever possible. Here, as in his score for ”The Rock,” he misses no opportunity to elbow the audience in the ribs.