The Man in the Iron Mask Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

All for one... and one for all.

The heroic swashbuckling Musketeers-- Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan, were the central characters of the classic literary trilogy written by author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), that started with "The Three Musketeers", continued with "Twenty Years After", and concluded with "Le Vicomte de Bragelonne". It is within "Le Vicomte de Bragelonne" that the story of "The Man in the Iron Mask" is derived, a tale of heroism, romance, and intrigue. And the latest film adaptation, by writer/director Randall Wallace (who scripted "Braveheart"), manages to bring all this to the big screen, despite a few flaws.

If you think you think you'll be getting a history lesson by watching this film, you're only half-right. Dumas used real characters and real events in his books, though re-invented the circumstances in which they existed, placing a whole new spin on history. The Man in the Iron Mask was a real prisoner, held in the dark confines of the Bastille, but to this day, his identity has remained a mystery. In "The Man in the Iron Mask", Dumas conjectures that this unknown prisoner was in fact the twin brother of King Louis XIV, the unfortunate victim of a royal power struggle, and it is with the help of the four Musketeers that he seeks to reclaim his throne.

The King is a dog. A dog and a coward.

It is pre-Revolution France, and it is suffering under the yoke of its merciless monarch, King Louis XIV (Leonard DiCaprio, still riding high in "Titanic"), who feeds his starving subjects spoiled food, and has them shot if they complain. The original Musketeers, revered as heroes, have long since retired. Athos (John Malkovich, in quite a different role from "Con Air") is proud father to Raul (Peter Sarsgaard), a young soldier in the King's army. Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) spends his days immersed in debauchery, but finds difficulty in 'working his sword' in bed. Aramis (Jeremy Irons of "Chinese Box") has returned to his Jesuit roots, and D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne, last seen in "Smilla's Sense of Snow") is now Captain of the Musketeers, charged with guarding his self-serving King from all threats.

I am a young king... but I am King.

Aramis gathers his retired compatriots together for a clandestine meeting, in the hopes of finding a means to remove King Louis from the throne. D'Artagnan, with his vow to protect the King, and his hopes of Louis eventually becoming a benevolent ruler, will not have any part of their plot, and promises to stop them if they attempt a coup d'etat. Athos is not in need of any prodding-- King Louis, after being enamored with Raul's fiancée Christine (Judith Godreche of "Ridicule"), sends Raul back to the front lines of battle, allowing Louis to seduce Christine unfettered. Unfortunately, Raul is killed in action, and Athos swears to avenge his son's death with the King's blood. Porthos, wishing to recapture the halcyon glory of his youth, also takes up arms alongside his brethren.

The key to Aramis plot is to free the Man in the Iron Mask, who is allegedly Louis' twin brother, Filipe. In order to achieve a bloodless coup, the plan is to switch Filipe for Louis, after which Filipe can subtly institute change, giving the people of France the leadership it deserves. However, the plot is complicated by the motivations of D'Artagnan, who finds himself torn by the displaced loyalties between his fellow Musketeers, and the King that he serves-- and the reasons for D'Artagnan's moral dilemma are more complex than they initially appear.

You are constantly surrounded by beautiful women. Do you love any of them?
Yes, quite frequently as a matter of fact.

The results of Wallace's efforts are mixed. On one hand, TMITIM is a lavish period-production, full of deliciously-realized visuals and sumptuous production design. On the other hand, some of Wallace's attempts at creating an epic cinematic experience fall flat, such as a 'food riot' by the citizens of Paris, that comes across as an out-take of a crowd scene from a "Hercules" or "Xena" episode. And speaking of "Hercules", the dialogue takes a similar approach, with characters uttering anachronistic exchanges (and I won't even get into the mishmash of accents found in this film). And while the final act is full of rip-roaring excitement, the first two acts suffer from a meandering narrative that fails to form into a cohesive story until late in the second act, testing the audience's patience. Furthermore, Wallace tries to hard to spoon-feed plot points to the audience by breaking the golden rule of screenwriting on several occasions-- show it, don't say it. Instead of relying on the camera to convey the emotions and internal turmoil of the characters, the characters come and say the obvious in the most prosaic manner possible.

However, TMITIM is not all that bad. At the heart of the story is the character of D'Artagnan, who has the difficult task of sorting out his conflicting loyalties. The motivations of his character are well-sketched, and his development proceeds logically based on these motivations. DiCaprio manages to turn in a decent performance in his dual roles, both as the malicious-yet-delicious King Louis, and as the uncertain Filipe, who must feign the arrogance of his brother to pass as the King. Malkovitch also comes across well, in his portrayal of a man with noble aspirations, but driven by an insatiable bloodlust from being painfully wronged. Anne Parillaud ("La Femme Nikita"), as the Queen Mother, manages to do the best she can with her limited screen time. However, performances do run the full spectrum in TMITIM-- the forced emoting by Godreche is at times painful to watch, and Depardieu never manages to rise above the comic relief trappings of his character.

"The Man in the Iron Mask" aims to be a historical drama, though it has been sufficiently simplified and finessed to appeal to younger audiences (most notably, the casting of DiCaprio). This film, in essence is the Cliff's Notes version-- in the transition from print to screen, it loses the sharp characterizations and the atmosphere of political intrigue in Dumas' writing. But if you are just out for a swashbuckling old time in the theater, then this is an entertaining movie that delivers the goods, despite its flaws, and warrants a look.

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