The second directorial effort from British producer Matthew Vaughan, who prior to his debut with Layer Cake in 2004 was best known variously as the best mate of director Guy Ritchie or the husband of supermodel Claudia Schiffer, is a surprising change of direction.
After all, Vaughan started out closely associated with the late-1990s revival of the British gangster movie after successfully shepherding Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to worldwide success. He went on to produce Richie’s follow-up, the similarly-themed Snatch, and has the dubious honour of having also helped bring the dire Madonna-starring Richie flick Swept Away and equally tedious Vinnie Jones vehicle Mean Machine to our screens. His own debut effort was another gangster flick, albeit a stylish and interesting effort that did much to raise Daniel Craig’s stock prior to his appointment as the latest James Bond.
In other words, the last thing you’d expect someone whose film career to date has largely revolved around the macho-heavy world of stylised violence and inventive swearing is a children’s fantasy flick. It’s akin to Quentin Tarantino suddenly churning out a light comedy for Disney. But having said that, Tarantino’s best buddy, the violence-heavy Desperado and Sin City director Robert Rodriguez, has had his biggest commercial success to date with his family-friendly Spy Kids series – so why, especially after the revival of the fantasy genre with the success of the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Narnia films, shouldn’t Vaughan try something similar?
Based on a novel by British writer Neil Gaiman, best known for his cult comic book work and team-ups with Terry Pratchett, unlike many of the other post-Lord of the Rings line-up of fantasy films, Vaughan hasn’t opted for a well-known work to bring to the screen. Instead of scrabbling around to adapt old favourites like the Narnia books or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, the first book of which has just come to the big screen in an Americanised version that has horrified the books’ fans, Vaughan has carefully selected something not just interesting, but also with genuine cinematic potential.
Set in a small 19th century English village, Gaiman’s novel consciously imitated the form of earlier fantasy works, from the young boy who discovers he has an extraordinary inheritance through to the entering in to strange and magical lands. Yet, as with most of Gaiman’s work, the familiarity of the premise is there largely to subvert expectations – a technique Vaughan seems consciously to have imitated in casting Sir Ian McKellen, Gandalf himself, as narrator.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive, from the veteran Peter O’Toole through rising star Sienna Miller, generally reliable workhorses Rupert Everett, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfeiffer, familiar British faces Sarah Alexander, Dexter Fletcher and Ricky Gervais, and even the mighty Robert De Niro, in a welcome return to the sci fi / fantasy genre.
With such a distinguished and varied group of actors and with such promising source material, little wonder that Stardust has been so well received since its initial US release back in August. An intriguing and original fantasy flick well worth a look for fans of the genre, this is also a welcome indication that in Vaughan we may be witnessing the arrival of another great British director. Never mind the once over-hyped and now washed-up Guy Richie, it is instead his producer who is now making waves in the world of the movies.