The Man in the Iron Mask
Screenplay : Randall Wallace (based on the novel "L'homme au masque de fer" by Alexandre Dumas)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (King Louis / Philippe), Jeremy Irons (Aramis), John Malkovich (Athos), Gérard Depardieu (Porthos), Gabriel Byrne (D'Artagnan), Anne Parillaud (Queen Anne), Judith Godrèche (Christine), Edward Atterton (Lieutenant Andre), Peter Sarsgaard (Raoul)
"The Man in the Iron Mask," based on the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas, is a well-made adventure film that doesn't have much adventure. It has a lot of beautiful French locations, a stunning A-list cast of actors, and technical merit oozing from every corner, but it never really grabs hold of you the way a good swashbuckling adventure should.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Three Musketeers, Aramis (Jeremy Irons), Athos (John Malkovich ), and Porthos (Gérard Depardieu) are retired when the film opens. Or maybe it's because much of the plot deals with intrigue and mystery rather than swordplay and gunfights. But no, I think it's something deeper than that. There's an underlying problem with "The Man in the Iron Mask" that keeps it from ever being truly entertaining or rousing in the way that it should be. Simply put, it never convinces us that it's not a costume movie.
The story takes place in France in 1662, where the spoiled young King Louis (Leonardo DiCaprio) rules in decadent luxury while his subjects are starving in the streets. The original Three Musketeers have retired, leaving their fourth, D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) as the head of the Musketeers, sworn to protecting the King. Louis is a self-absorbed, evil brat of a king, and he finally pushes the original Musketeers over the edge when he uses one of King David's nasty tricks from the Old Testament: he sends Athos's son, Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard) to die in the front lines of battle so he can make off with Raoul's fiancee, Christine (Judith Godrèche).
Although D'Artagnan refuses to betray the King, the other Musketeers conspire to get rid of Louis. It turns out that Louis has a twin brother that not even his mother, Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud), knows about because she was told he died after birth. In order to maintain his unchallenged claim to the throne, Louis had his brother, Philippe (also played by DiCaprio) put in prison and locked inside an iron mask so no one would know his identity. The Three Musketeers plan get rid of Louis by breaking Philippe out of jail and switching him with the evil King.
"The Man in the Iron Mask" was adapted from the Dumas novel by first-time director Randall Wallace, whose main claim to fame is his Academy Award-nominated script for Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." Because of his connection with that film -- also a period movie filled with swords, evil royalty, and revolution -- comparisons will be inevitable. The fact is, "Braveheart" worked brilliantly because it pulled use into the story from its opening moments and convinced us that we were watching William Wallace fight the English armies in the 12th century. "The Man in the Iron Mask" never gets us to make that leap, and we are so consciously aware that it is a period movie that it becomes impossible to be fully engulfed by it.
Technically, the film is a marvel. Wallace assembled a team of cinematic professionals who have worked in this kind of material before. The production design by Anthony Pratt, who did such a brilliant job on John Boorman's Arthurian epic "Excalibur," is as glorious in the wealth surrounding King Louis as it is grotesque in the dingy dungeon occupied by the prisoner of the title. The costumes were designed by James Acheson, whose experience ranges from "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" to his Academy Award-winning design for "The Last Emperor."
Ironically, the movie's main drawback is the cast of Academy Award darling actors. DiCaprio, hot off "Titanic," hits a wall from the get-go -- he never convinces us that he's a French king. Irons, Malkovich, and Depardieu all come off like themselves with hair extensions and Musketeer clothing. Their performances aren't bad, they're just inadequate for the material. Depardieu has some amusing moments as Porthos, who is traditionally the fun-loving jokester of the group, but Irons is too grim and Malkovich is terribly miscast as the grieving Athos. All these actors have worked in period pieces before, but you wouldn't know it; their acting is much too stagy to be taken seriously on film.
Of course, some of the fault can be laid at the feet of Wallace's dialogue, which is all too often stilted and showy. Not even an actor as talented and multi-faceted as Gabriel Byrne can pull off a line like, "To love you is treason to France. But not to love you is treason to my heart." But, as bad as that sounds, at least we can take heart in the fact that he didn't even attempt a French accent.
©1998 James Kendrick