Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Three Musketeers in an Alternate Universe

The Three Musketeers (2011) is a film that really should not be viewed as historical fiction. Rather, it is an example of historical fantasy, where realistic historical aspects are mixed with fantastical creations in the style of airships and biker leather jackets. In short, if you go in the theatre with an open mind, not expecting the movie to have much to do with Alexandre Dumas' classic story or actual history, you might well expect to be entertained. Unfortunately, the movie has other shortcomings that detract from the experience even when one's expectations are as low as that.

There are certainly aspects in the movie that I liked. For example, it was great to see Ray Stevenson in the role of Porthos. Out of all the Porthoses that we've seen, this one is closest to the one that we know from the original stories: a big, brawny man, a head taller than the other Musketeers. To add to this description of the character, the film makers made him carry a double-edged, two-fullered schiavona. This sturdy mercenary sword really makes it clear that Porthos is more likely to use his brawn to solve any problems than his wits. He is also narcissistic, enjoying fancy clothes and has the familiar tendency to hide his meagre means by making his lovers pay for his extravagant lifestyle.

On the topic of swords, I must say that they may well be the high point of the film. Aside from Porthos' schiavona, the other Musketeer wield rapiers that are not too far outside the period depicted (early 17th century). The only real problem arises when d'Artagnan's father claims to his son that his sword has "passed from father to son for many generations". Since the sword in question has a 2-ring swept hilt design that only appeared around the turn of the 17th century, it is very unlikely that d'Artagnan's grandfather might have owned such a sword. In fact, this description would have better fitted Aramis' sword, which possesses an early 16th century hilt. Aside from this idiotic story-point, the only big problem in the swords' appearance is the mirror-finish on the blades, which is likely to make them look like cheap decoration pieces instead of serious period swords.

However, I must move on, as I suspect that the possible faults in the sword designs are not things that the average viewer is concerned about. The aspects that bothered me most in the film were the story and characterisations. Not wanting to spoil the story, I'll just say that it is very simplistic, losing much of the intricacy of the original in favour of action. This follows the modern tendency to downplay the role of adventure in action adventure films, so I cannot place the blame only on The Three Musketeers, but have to direct it at the modern film industry in general.

But even in action, you need to be able to care for the characters. This is where The Three Musketeers really lets you down. The characters are all introduced in ”cool” and stylish action sequences and they rarely utter more than one-liners and jokes throughout the film. We see a short scene of Porthos buying a new doublet, we hear a single line of dialogue referencing Aramis' religious tendencies and we see Athos looking sad on a couple of occasions, depicting his disappointment in his love life. In short, the characters remain set-pieces and have even less depth than the airships that seem to have the biggest role in the entire film.

On the other hand, there are some bright spots that make the film enjoyable on occasion. I already mentioned Ray Stevenson as Porthos, but I must also mention Freddie Fox as King Louis XIII of France. Even though his role is rather stereotypical in its portrayal of a clumsy, insecure man hoping to impress a woman (the Queen), the character manages to entertain the viewer, aside from one or two clumsier scenes. Also, as a man, I must admit I enjoy seeing women fight with swords and thus Milla Jovovich as Milady de Winter was also something that I liked about the movie. Certainly this version of Milady was better than the one we saw in the 1990's Disney version.

Overall, if The Three Musketeers was judged solely as an action movie, I would say that it is slightly above average (the swords help here). However, when considered as an adaptation of the classic Dumas' novel, this film misses the intricate plot, larger-than-life characters and the sense of adventure. In all these aspects, Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers from 1970's remain superior to this 2011 attempt.