Sight & Sound - April 1998


The Man in the Iron Mask

by Rob White


Having written the script for Braveheart, Randall Wallace turns his hand to direction with this adaption of Alexandre Dumas´ novel The Man in the Iron Mask, the last in a sequence featuring the four musketeers. Unlike Braveheart, which is sometimes aggravatingly pofaced, this latest version of the book (there have been at least five other films of it and a television series) is a gleefully tongue-in-cheek romp reminiscent of Richard Lester´s 70s musketeer films. It´s stylishly photographed by Peter Suschitzky, who shows off the Fontainebleau locations and dazzling costumes to full effect.

But, like Lester´s films which brought together Oliver Reed, Faye Dunaway and Raqel Welch, it´s the stellar cast who grab all the attention here. Gérard Depardieu makes a wonderful Porthos, by turns maudlin and rambunctious. Gabriel Byrne is a preoccupied, severe D´Artagnan, full of honour and secrets. John Malkovich, though his characteristically pedandic diction is occasionally frustrating, plays Athos subtly, hinting at a complexity beyond the film´s remit. Leonardo DiCaprio is impressive in the dual roles of the near-psychotic Louis XVI and his virtious, iron-masked twin brother Phillippe. Only Jeremy Irons, as the pious Aramis, puts in less than his best, a bit too brooding to pull of the comic lines. All the principals keep their own accents, so we can enjoy both their star personas and their essays in stock characterisation.

Dumas´ novel is inordinately long and wordy, and in his script Wallace rightly strips all of this out in order to maintain cinematic musketeer conventions. The novel concludes with D´Artagnan killed by a cannon ball in battle, and only Aramis is still alive by the end. Here, though, D´Artagnan alone is killed - throwing himself down in front of Louis´ sword as the king tries to murder his brother.

However, the script is still The Man in the Iron Mask´s weakest feature and, given to lesser actors, it could have been very ponderous. Even so, the film noticeably sags in the middle. Along the way, some interesting issues bubble under the surface. In a film so dependent on male characters, gender roles are disturbed and redistributed. A feminised Athos, grieving for his dead son, teaches Phillippe courtly behaviour, and carries out the task gently. There are also hints of all sorts of trauma and dysfunction - in the royal family but also in the solitariness of the legendary musketeers´ fading lives. Their precarious, lonely masculinity is almost reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah´s The Wild Bunch (1969), which is recalled in the climactic slowmotion, seemingly suicidal charge of the musketeers against the besieging troops in the Bastille. But these issues never come into full view, and we are left with a film which, at all right moments but especially in its last half hour, abandons seriousness in favour of swordfights, often to hilarious and completely satisfying effect.