The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

D: Randall Wallace
S: Leonardo Di Caprio, Gabriel Byrne, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu

The Three Musketeers return to the fray after years of retirement when Louis XIV's unjust rule becomes intolerable as he wages pointless wars to the cost of the ordinary people of France, who starve and riot in the streets of Paris. But fiercely loyal D'Artagnan refuses to turn against the King, because he still believes it to be his duty to serve him be his judgment right or wrong. But who is the mysterious person imprisoned on a remote island wearing an iron mask which obscures his features? Shock, horror, it's the King's long lost twin brother...and so the plot thickens. It that piece of information is a spoiler for you, then you haven't been around much. It's been about a hundred and forty years since Alexandre Dumas wrote the novel, and Randall Wallace's well meaning but ponderous adaptation is far from the first. In 1939 horror specialist James Whale helmed a vigorous war-era version (also entitled The Man in the Iron Mask) which varies considerably from this one, and both vary from the literary text. For most people that is an irrelevant consideration. The real question is is this one worth seeing?

Well yes and no. It is a visually ravishing carefully crafted costume drama with strong dramatic roles in which a cast of heavyweight actors ply their trade with skill and dedication. But it is also overlong and though the plot is very familiar through constant repetition, it insists on withholding the revelation about the twins until an hour in, skewering the dramatic focus literally in two. The second half is the weaker, which, despite DiCaprio's evident relish playing a dual role, lacks the character development of the first as he goes toe to toe with himself.

Though it is welcome to see so honest an attempt to retell this classic tale in the era of self-referential cowardice, and though this is certainly a better film than the most recent version of The Three Musketeers, it is distended and overwrought and tends to be less involving than it presumes it is. There is also very little joy in the film. An air of doom hangs over the proceedings, and though this helps to enforce the seriousness of the dramatic and political questions raised by Wallace's script, it makes for tough viewing. Though Richard Lester's semi-parodic Musketeer films of the 1970s have now had their day, they were certainly more fun to watch (though his belated version of one of the original novel's sequels The Return of the Musketeers (based on Twenty Years After) was an unhappy failure back in 1989), as was James Whales' version of this same story. Of course it may have been this seriousness which attracted the cast, and it certainly is an impressive one.

Gabriel Byrne is a wonderful, brooding D'Artagnan (echoes of his stint as the baddie in Lionheart are audible), carrying his many burdens of state and self with an understated suffering. Jeremy Irons is a good Aramis, well backed up by John Malkovich's tortured Athos. Only Gerard Depardieu seems out of sorts as Porthos, purely because his enjoyable interpretation of the most colourful character sticks out like so much comic relief in the midst of all this thespian musing. Di Caprio is heavily outgunned in this company, but carries himself well nonetheless, and Anne Parillaud makes a fetching Queen Mother.

There are pleasures to be had from watching it, and it is likely to hold up well as the years pass. It has a timeless concern with the real meat of the drama and a lack of knowing (post)modern revisionism. It is well made, well acted and generally well written (though the script could have used a little tuck and trim). But not everyone will find it entertaining. It is certainly not a film for the audience who flocked to The Three Musketeers in 1993. Remember that Wallace's previous work as a writer includes Braveheart, and some of the same concerns about nationality and honour are worked in here. But it doesn't have the dramatic momentum of the Gibson film nor the crowd-pleasing sensibilities of the Disney opus. The result is a difficult film to recommend to the casual viewer, and yet one with too many flaws to satisfy the more discerning. Still, fans of the older cast should enjoy it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.