On Stardust

Featuring Ian McKellen (X-Men film series, The Lord of the Rings film series, The Hobbit film series, Doctor Who‘s The Snowmen), Claire Danes (Princess Mononoke, The Hours, Terminator: Rise of the Machines), Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns, Hairspray, What Lies Beneath), Peter O’Toole (Casanova), and Henry Cavill (Man of Steel), Stardust a film adaptation of the 1999 Neil Gaiman (Doctor Who‘s The Doctor’s Wife) novel of the same name.

Notably, Tristan Thorn is a Cinderella story, and Yvaine the Fallen Star is a Women as Reward (see Feminist Frequency‘s Women as Reward), specifically, starting out an an inanimate object that somehow becomes a person. According to the Lady Geek Girl article, “Stardust and the Women Who Don’t Do Anything“:

I really love the movie Stardust. I’ll watch it any time it comes on. But while rewatching it recently, I realized how often the women in the movie were not active participants in the story. Victoria, Yvaine, and Una don’t get to do much of anything—they don’t fight battles, go on any great quests, discover any great secrets, or attempt to gain the family throne. The only female participants who are very active at all are the evil witches, particularly Lamia, their leader. This sends a particularly bad message, especially since of all of the good female characters I mentioned, only one wasn’t someone’s prisoner. Una is kidnapped by another witch, Yvaine is kidnapped for a time by Tristan, and Victoria, though never kidnapped, is barely in the movie and is portrayed as rather vain and selfish. Basically, the women of Stardust not only do very little, but also are severely lacking in any sort of empowerment.

Stardust is about a young man named Tristan who grew up in a village called Wall, named for the large wall separating the town from the forest where a whole other world exists filled with magical beings. Tristan’s father sneaks over the wall and meets Una. The two fall in love and have sex, but Una is imprisoned by a witch and Tristan’s father can’t free her, so when Tristan is born, he is left by the wall to be raised by his father. Tristan falls in love with a woman named Victoria who is not interested in him, but uses his affection for her to get what she wants. Tristan swears to get her a star that fell on the other side of the wall as a way to prove his love for her. She agrees, but only gives him a week to bring the star back. Tristan goes to collect the star on the other side of the wall, but finds Yvaine instead who is in fact the star. He then kidnaps her in order to take her back to Victoria.

Yvaine fell because a diamond flung from Earth hits her and knocks her out of the sky. Her fall is noticed by some witches who eat the hearts of stars to stay young and beautiful. Lamia, the head witch, is sent to find Yvaine and cut out her heart. Along the way Tristan and Yvaine start to fall in love and she becomes no longer his prisoner but his willing partner in his travels. She does eventually get captured by the witches, who try to take her heart, but they defeat the witches and Tristan discovers that the recently freed Una is his mother and the princess of Stormhold. This means Tristan is now king, because apparently Una can’t rule, so he marries Yvaine and spurns Victoria, and everyone lives happily ever after. It’s an entertaining movie, but you can probably see all of the problems here already.

Let’s start with Victoria. She’s the beautiful popular girl whom everyone loves, but she’s also vain, materialistic, manipulative, and selfish. Because that’s not a stereotype we haven’t seen a billion times before. I’d like to humanize Victoria and believe she is trying to be nice to Tristan but isn’t into him, but that is clearly not the case. She is painted as just being out for the man who can give her the best gifts and most wealth. Her other suitor, Humpfrey, is more dashing and wealthy, and he’s the man she clearly prefers, but she still agrees to marry Tristan if her can bring her a star to rival the large diamond Humpfrey is getting her. It seems to be an opportunistic moment for her to send Tristan on an impossible task just to get him out of her hair—but if he succeeds, she still gets a star. Victoria clearly sees it as a win-win situation. Tristan later returns to tell Victoria that he isn’t marrying her and even specifically tells her to get over herself. Victoria is totally, annoyingly one-dimensional, just the complete stereotype of the pretty girl who is ugly on the inside.

Then we have Una, the kidnapped princess and Tristan’s mother, but we never learn much about her. We don’t know how she was kidnapped, and we never really learn anything about her other than that she is Tristan’s mother. She is clearly only there to serve as a plot device to put Tristan on the throne. The only real action in the main plot she gets involved in is when Yvaine thinks Tristan abandoned her and tries to cross the wall. Yvaine doesn’t realize that crossing the wall will turn her into rock, basically into a nonhuman star, and Una manages to stop her from crossing just in time. This victory is short-lived, however, because Lamia kidnaps them almost immediately after. Furthermore, despite being a kidnapped princess, her brothers and father don’t seem to have put much effort into finding her beyond wondering what happened to her. And of course there is the whole sexist thing about how Una can’t rule the kingdom because she’s a woman. Even in a fantasy world there is apparently institutional sexism.

Yvaine, meanwhile, is our main female character and arguably the most powerful person in the movie, but she doesn’t really get to do much with those powers. Yvaine is pissed that she fell and sprained her ankle in the process and is then kidnapped by Tristan. She eventually agrees to travel with him only because he promises to send her home to the sky using a magical candle after he presents her to Victoria. At one point, she tries to escape, only to be almost killed by Lamia and saved by Tristan. After Tristan decides he wants to be with Yvaine, he leaves a message for her saying he is going to tell Victoria he doesn’t want to be with her, but the message gets relayed to Yvaine wrong and she tries to walk across the wall to find Tristan, only to be saved again by Una, and then quickly kidnapped again by Lamia.

Then, yet again, Tristan saves Yvaine, but Lamia is still alive and it doesn’t seem like he can beat her. This is when Yvaine finally does something. She tells Tristan to close his eyes and shines brightly enough to kill Lamia. Tristan marries her, which also grants him immortality because Yvaine gave her heart to him so they both live forever. So Yvaine is an immortal being that can kill people with the light she emits, but she is just now using that power! Why? Also, why didn’t Tristan burn up? All he did was close his eyes! There are some limitations on Yvaine’s powers: her light is controlled by her mood, so when she is not feeling well or is upset, she can’t shine, but she starts shining more as she falls in love with Tristan. But Tristan at one point is captured by a different witch and Yvaine can’t do anything but wait for the witch to release Tristan. She is already in love with him at this point. Why can’t she use her powers then? Can she only use them when it is convenient for the plot? So despite being the main female character, Yvaine doesn’t do much of anything either.

And lastly, there are the witches, Lamia in particular. The other two witches are her sisters and are pretty forgettable. Lamia is the one who travels to find the star. She uses her magic to get what she wants, hexes people who annoy her or betray her in any way, and she comes up with a variety of plots to catch Yvaine and steal her heart. Lamia is the only female character who is actually really active. She is on a quest, she fights her enemies, she uses her abilities to obtain her goal—but of course, she is evil. She’s the only woman to really do anything and she is just simply an evil witch. On top of this, like Victoria, she is also vain, since part of the reason she wants the star is to be young and beautiful again. Tristan manages to kill both her sisters and Lamia sends Yvaine and Tristan away because she says immortality and power is pointless without her sisters to share it with, but that turns out to be a trick so that Yvaine’s heart has hope and shines brighter, making it more powerful for Lamia when she takes it. On top of this, Lamia also rants that she is glad her sisters are dead because now she can have all the power herself. So the movie did at one point have the opportunity to give her at least some depth even as the villain, but it was tossed aside.

It truly bothers me how the only active female character in Stardust is evil and how many of these female characters fulfill basic stereotypes and are given little to no character. Yvaine could have been so interesting and powerful and Una could have added another badass female element by having her be active in the race to claim the throne, but they are just brushed aside. All the female characters, with the exception of Lamia, are really just there to serve as motivations or plot points for Tristan. Despite how much I enjoy this movie, it really is rather cliché and disappointing when it comes to how women are portrayed.

Finally, according to Living the Liminal’s article, “10 Reasons Why I Hate the Movie Version of Stardust“:

Gender stereotypes on board the flying ship

I’m not going to even get into the whole drag/gender/gay thing that was going on with Robert DeNiro’s character–although I found it narratively unnecessary at best and, at worst, it perpetuated a whole matrix of stereotypes with the flimsy excuse of “well we always new you were a fag but we accept you anyway,” despite the fact that most cross dressers are straight and most gay men do not cross dress so the movie continues the delusion that deviant gender behavior = “deviant” sexual preference. I’m not going to bring up the fact that whenever straight male actors play “flaming” gay characters they tend to be applauded but if actors who take a chance and play fully dimensional gay characters and who are shown sharing intimate moments with another man, then a) a lot of people see that as “risky” in terms of career and b) a lot of people would find their narrow notions of sexuality challenged, so the lesson that Stardust the movie further perpetuates is: its ok to have representations of gay men as long as we are making fun of them in some way and keeping them from being completely human. In fact, I’m equally irritated by the sequences where Tristan gets to learn sword fighting and pits himself against the elements while Yvaine gets piano lessons and learns how to dance. Give me a break! This is not only offensive, but incredible lazy. There is a passage in the book about Tristran being allowed to help out with the ship’s chores, but absolutely no reason to draw such stereotypical gender lines and especially for no good reason. Instead of taking the screen time to develop characters or add in some of the things that filmmaker’s cut from the book, they simply wasted my time with a dumb-ass, sexist montage. Way to go, I’m so impressed.

Conflation of violence as manliness

The movie explicitly states that it is about seeing Tristan go from being a boy to being a man. How does he do this? He learns to fight. In one early scene, he is handily beat down by the town asshole and then toward the end we see him beating, not only the asshole, but by killing the three bitches . . . I mean witches as well. The book is about growing to manhood as well – only Tristran learns to be a man by coming face to face with the consequences of his actions, with the realization that the journey is the destination, that love is not like it is in the storybooks. The scriptwriters and director of the movie seem to have no sense of imagination, no really love of story because the best they can come up with is to rewrite the end of the story so that we can watch a tedious action sequence that teaches us nothing about ourselves. A sequence that is wholly designed to feed the stultified imaginations of several generations grown up on the sickly-sweet pap of Hollywood stories instead of stories that mean something.

According to The New York Times review:

In “Stardust,” a sprawling, effects-laden fairy tale with the thundering stamina of a marathon horse race, Michelle Pfeiffer is Lamia, as deliciously evil a witch as the movies have ever invented. Shooting deadly green lightning from rings on her tapering long-nailed fingers, she suggests a seriously lethal beauty contestant of a certain age who will stop at nothing to seize the crown.

As the embodiment of every vain, wicked stepmother in fairy-tale literature mixed with the cauldron-tending crones of “Macbeth” (Lamia is one of three cackling sisters), Ms. Pfeiffer goes for broke with the relish of a star who figures she has nothing to lose.

The eternal youth and beauty she and her sisters covet can be attained only by cutting out and eating the heart of Yvaine (Claire Danes), an actual fallen star that, upon crashing to the ground in the imaginary kingdom of Stormhold, assumes human form. Yvaine must be found, captured and eviscerated.

But since Lamia has only a limited amount of magic to deploy before she begins to shrivel into a grotesque, balding hag, she must conserve her resources. As fire spirals from her hands like serpent tongues, she metamorphoses from a feline beauty with a sickly sweet smile into various stages of decrepitude. Her nightmare image of herself comes and goes as she unleashes and renews her powers.

By all rights Lamia shouldn’t be the center of “Stardust.” The spine of the tale is a conventional initiation story in which Tristan (Charlie Cox), a poor young villager from the English town of Wall, promises to bring the prettiest local girl (Sienna Miller) a fallen star like the shooting one that has just zoomed overhead; she gives him a week to deliver.

The town is named after the wall separating the real world from Stormhold, which humans are forbidden to enter, although there is only one ancient guard patrolling the breach. Tristan, whose father broke the rules and leapt through, is a foundling product of his dad’s liaison 18 years earlier with a witch’s slave in Stormhold.

“Stardust” is Paramount Pictures’ bid to enter the “Lord of the Rings”-Harry Potter sweepstakes with a splash. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s four-book 1997 DC Comics mini-series, which later became a novel, it is conceived by Matthew Vaughn, the director of the seedy British gangster film “Layer Cake,” as a full-blooded action-adventure fairy tale.

Even when the movie goes haywire with an extraneous comic gambit involving an airborne pirate ship, it barrels forward with a fearless audacity. Far too many characters are crowded together for comfort, and there are serious casting errors, but the movie assumes that its churning energy, lightened with whimsy, will carry the day. And, to an extent, it does.

The most glaring of several mistakes in casting is Ms. Danes’s charm-free Yvaine, a cranky older version of her teenage character on the television series “My So-Called Life.” Even after Yvaine mellows and warms to Tristan, who discovers her in a crater and becomes her protector, Ms. Danes has a distracting habit of scrunching her features into a scowl unbefitting a supernatural heroine who aspires to live happily ever after. At a certain point you may find yourself imagining how much better “Stardust” might have been with Gwyneth Paltrow in the role.

Yvaine is pursued by an entire hunting party’s worth of characters, whose goals blur into a general stampede. It begins with the death of Stronghold’s cagey monarch (Peter O’Toole), who pits his seven sons against one another for the throne, which can be won only through possession of a ruby pendant worn by Yvaine. After fraternal massacre, three brothers remain to fight it out while the others’ ghosts amusedly comment from above like a supernatural Greek chorus.

Beyond Lamia, the movie suffers from a dire lack of strong, clear-cut characters, with one outrageous exception. Halfway through the story, Tristan and Yvaine are rocketed into space, where they eventually plunk down on an amphibious pirate ship suspended from a dirigible. Enter Robert De Niro in his all-time campiest screen performance as its skipper, Captain Shakespeare.

Wearing a demonic grin and speaking in a caricature of the New York mobster voice he used in “Analyze This,” he yanks the movie out of its quasi-medieval mists-of-northern-Britain past into a farcical limbo. The fearsome captain is soon revealed to have dual identities. Alone in his quarters, he exchanges his pirate duds for the costume of a cancan-dancing, boa-twirling Folies-Bergère chorus girl prancing before a mirror to the sounds of Offenbach. The crew, it turns out, knows about his tendencies but has maintained a respectful silence.

If Mr. De Niro’s zany drag routine makes as much sense in “Stardust” as a squawking kazoo solo inserted into a Mozart string quartet, it makes movie-trivia sense if you think of it as a hip response to Johnny Depp’s fey, mascara-wearing “Pirates of the Caribbean” character, Jack Sparrow. In that case, this joke about a joke is either a piece of inspired madcap fun or an excruciating embarrassment.


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