Sunday, 17 April 2016

Review: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

Alexandre Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask storyline has been adapted to film several times. I previously reviewed the 1977 version and the 1979 version and noted how they had changed the original story to a large degree. That's no different with the 1998 version of the tale, starring Leonardo diCaprio, but the changes that have been made are very different from the previous versions.

King Louis XIV (DiCaprio) is depicted as a self-centered king who cares little for his people and beds every woman he can get his hands on. Unlike in history, he seems to be unmarried and his younger brother and his wife (with whom the real Louis and Dumas' Louis had a long dalliance) are nowhere to be seen. The older quartet of musketeers are closer to their Dumas counterparts: Aramis has become priest, Athos lives with his son, Raoul, who is becoming a musketeer, d'Artagnan is the captain of the King's Musketeers and Porthos spends his days dallying with much younger women. Out of these only Porthos' portrayal steers far from the original (Dumas' Porthos had his own lands to take care of and he enjoyed being a rich lord, although he always wanted more).

The dramatic storyline begins to unfold when Raoul brings his beloved Christine to the king's party and Louis sets his eyes on her. He soon sends Raoul to the war to get him out of the way and begins to woo the innocent woman. When Raoul dies, Athos sees the king as his enemy and intends to attack him, only to be stopped by d'Artagnan and his musketeers. Soon afterwards, the four gather around to plot against the king, with the intention of replacing him. D'Artagnan abhors he idea and vows that he will stand by the king. From then on, the story sets the three musketeers against d'Artagnan and the king.

One curious change in the story is the replacement of Raoul's beloved Louise de la Valliere with Christine. I cannot fathom what the reason might have been, since Christine serves very much the same role in the story - except perhaps in the quality of love they felt towards the king and Raoul. Perhaps it was simply to avoid two characters with similar sounding names - Louis/Louise? Also set aside are the characters of Fouquet and Colbert, whose rivalry was behind most of the original story. And change concerns Athos, who in the original mostly stood on the sidelines, but here joins with Aramis and Porthos in their devious designs. And, of course, whereas Aramis played his cards close to his chest in the original (never revealing his designs even to Porthos), here he states his intentions openly. D'Artagnan is mostly true to his literary version in character, but his role is changed quite drastically here plot-wise as it is revealed that he and the queen are very much in love with each other. And anyone who expects certain characters to die in the way they did in the original or in actual history will be quite surprised by the ending.

However, despite the great changes to the original story, I found that the 1998 version very enjoyable. DiCaprio may not be able to project anguish quite on the level of Richard Chamberlain, but they both do great job in the roles of the king and his secret twin brother. The rest of the cast is as good and it was a delightful surprise to see Hugh Laurie as one of the king's unfortunate advisors. It must be said, however, that I found it difficult to accept John Malkovich as Athos. A great actor, for sure, but not quite the type of person I see Athos as. Similarly, Porthos' character is a bit too far removed from the original to really appeal to me, but it was not as bad as I remembered it from when I saw the movie in a theatre.

A fun detail is that although the character of Fouquet has been dropped from the story, his castle is very much present: Vaux-le-Vicomte is used as Versailles. This is the very same castle that was featured in the original Dumas story as the setting where the switch of the king with his brother took place (and it was also featured as itself in the 1977 adaptation). However, the very best thing about this film adaptation is that the script-writers seem to actually have read the original; quite a few of the exchanges between the characters and some events are clearly influenced by Dumas' writing and the overall tone - that of aging men seeing that their time is soon to be over - is much like Dumas described it. A melancholy tale, for sure, but very well executed.