A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 210 – Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke – September 26th, 2010

For some reason, even though I adore fantasy movies and knights and curses and magic and clever thief characters and the like, this was never a staple for me. I’ve seen it through a couple of times and in bits and pieces a few more, but it’s not a go-to fantasy movie for me. Strange, since there’s plenty in it for me to enjoy as well as enough to make fun of that it keeps me grinning. It’s got a plot that’s not a typical quest and an anti-hero and I do like a clever thief and a strong female lead. And it’s all there. It just somehow never got on my regular rotation.

Fantasy movies are often placed in a sort of vague medieval setting and this one is no exception. It’s set in our world, obviously. There are mentions of the Crusades and all. It’s just a version of our world where one can make pacts with the devil to curse one’s enemies. The thing is, while the castles and clothing and general setting say medieval Europe (France, I assume but the specific country is never made super important), the music says 1980s. It says it loudly and clearly with a lot of synth. Somehow, what with this not being something I put in all that often, I’d managed to forget just how ever-present the music is. It was written by Alan Parsons, apparently because the director, Richard Donner, was listening to the Alan Parsons Project while scouting locations and ended up with the locations and music linked in his head. That’s all well and good, but half the time I expected women in leotards to jog in and start doing aerobics. That’s highly distracting, to say the least, especially since without the music the movie is beautifully done to place you in the time period.

It really comes off more as a fairy tale than a high fantasy. There are no elves here, or wizards. What there are instead are a pair of lovers, cursed by a man who wanted the woman for himself and was willing to turn from God to keep them apart. There is a monk who brought about their predicament and knows how to lift the curse. And there is a young thief with nothing to do with curses and lovers and Bishops, until he gets pulled into their story. It feels like something you could read in one of Andrew Lang’s Fairy books. According to IMDB it was marketed as being based on a real medieval legend, even though it’s not, so the feel of it being like a fairy tale wasn’t lost on others. It does mean that the music comes off as all the more odd, but the story itself is told so well.

Our main protagonist isn’t either of the lovers. It’s the thief. Phillipe “Mouse” Gaston, recently escaped from the dungeons of Aquila, meets up with Navarre, one of the lovers. And slowly he learns that Navarre and the hawk he carries with him are not at all what he thought. In the daytime Navarre is a man with a hawk. At night there is no Navarre and there is no hawk. There is a woman named Isabeau and a wolf. See what I mean about it sounding like a fairy tale? The vast majority of the movie is spent with Mouse traveling with Navarre and Isabeau, encountering various dangers and whatnot and getting to know Navarre in the day and Isabeau at night. Since they can’t speak to each other they both want him to act as a sort of go-between. To be honest, I find those parts far more interesting than the various fights and whatnot.

There’s a good deal of action in the movie, of course. It stands to reason, given that we need some dramatic tension and the Bishop who wants to keep them apart has been sending soldiers and all after them. The Captain of the guard gets a little more face time than the rest and there’s a rivalry set up between him and Navarre, since Navarre was the captain once. But then there’s also a hunter the Bishop brings in to hunt the wolf and I think he’s supposed to be a bigger deal than he ends up being. He shows up and then there’s an encounter, and then he’s dead. It seems somewhat perfunctory. A lot of the action is like that. Soldiers show up, Mouse and/or Isabeau is in danger (or Navarre in the case of the hunter), Navarre saves the day, let’s move on. So the focus really is on Mouse and his relationships with Navarre and Isabeau. The action scenes feel like punctuation to me. Which isn’t a problem. They’re not bad scenes, just not given enough time to be interesting beyond the visuals.

I would have to say that my biggest issue – aside from the incongruity of the synthy music – is in the end and how Navarre treats Isabeau when she’s in hawk form. I don’t blame him in the least for the jesses and hood. It’s plainly stated early on that the wolf and the hawk aren’t really aware of their human lives. They don’t know they’re human. They don’t remember what they’re told. While the wolf comes to Isabeau and the hawk to Navarre, and they know each other on some level, they’re not truly aware. Fine. But I think Navarre has either gotten too used to being the hawk’s owner, or it’s the time period slinking in. Because he tells Father Imperius to kill her in her hawk form if he fails to deal with the Bishop. Isabeau gets no say in the matter. Maybe she’d agree, not wanting to live on only human at night, without her beloved even parted as they are. But no. It’s not “Wait until nightfall and tell Isabeau and let her choose.” It’s “Kill her, make it fast.” Men.

Aside from that, it’s a lovely movie full of some beautiful scenery and a story that has elements from some classics, but is very much its own thing. There are some great performances from the leads as well. Even though I’ve got a very different role as my default vision of Rutger Hauer he does an excellent job as Navarre, who’s kind of a jackass but still an honorable man who truly loves Isabeau and would do anything for her. Michelle Pfeiffer gets some great moments in as Isabeau, who’s a rather tragic figure but also very strong, which I like. She’s not some wispy damsel, even if she doesn’t get a truly equal partnership in the whole thing. I managed to ignore Matthew Broderick’s amazing disappearing accent enough to enjoy his performance as Mouse, and he does do a great job with the awkward and bizarre position Mouse has landed himself in. Also worth noting is Leo McKern as Father Imperius. I love Leo McKern, who will always be a mish-mash of Rumpole of the Bailey and Number 2 for me, making his turn as a drunken monk tormented by one fateful action a nicely different vision of him, even if his laugh is instantly identifiable. He’s sort of like Brian Blessed that way.

This may not be one of my very favorite movies I’ll put in for comfort viewing, and the music may not have aged well. The special effects aren’t fantastic, but the movie doesn’t depend on them for more than a single scene so I don’t mind that. Really, the faults are all far outweighed by the merits. I’ll have to put it in more often, because it really is fun to watch.

September 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment


September 26, 2010


I have fond memories of this movie from my youth. I can’t think of any other movies with quite the same spirit – it is a gritty and realistic fantasy film. In almost every regard the world this movie takes place in is a completely believable representation of medieval Italy. Or at least a parallel world Italy where an evil bishop rules the countryside with an iron fist from his fortress of Aquila. There is only one actual piece of magic in this movie, and it is that one piece of sorcery that defines the movie. The only other movie I can think of that even resembles this one is the medieval murder mystery Name of the Rose.

The movie follows the adventures of young Phillipe “The Mouse” Gaston, a thief and pickpocket who escapes from the prison in the impregnable fortress of Aquila. He is the first person to ever have done so, and is pursued by guards intent on returning him to the prison to be hung for his crimes. When they finally catch up to him, however, he is rescued by an exiled guard captain named Navarre who takes Phillipe’s escape as a symbol that the time for his return has come. For Navarre has a score to settle with the evil bishop. We discover thanks to the kindly monk Father Imperious that Navarre and his love Isabeau are under a curse, and poor Phillipe becomes mixed up in the whole affair.

I have a couple small quibbles with the film, watching it again tonight for the first time in a couple decades. The eighties-pop inspired Alan Parsons Project music somewhat dates the movie now for example. It’s still thrilling and exciting, but synth music in a fantasy movie is a very eighties thing. Then there’s Matthew Broderic’s transitory accent. Michelle Pfeiffer, Leo McKern and Rutgar Haur don’t seem to feel any need to put on different accents than their natural ones, but Broderick attempts at time to do an English accent, but then forgets it for most of the rest of the film.

There are so many more things about this movie that I love though. The cast is superb, even with Broderic’s accent. Rutger Haur is great at playing the driven man on a mission with nothing to lose. Matthew Broderick has the task of being both the comic relief for the film and the charming rogue. He manages to carry it off well, I think, and is a lot of fun to watch doing it. Leo McKern is the grizzled and tortured Father Imperious, who partly blames himself for the curse at the heart of the movie. He’s always fun to watch, and this movie is no exception to that. And Michelle Pfeiffer manages to take a role that’s written mostly as a damsel in distress and provide her with a little steel.

The design of the movie and the locations they found to film it in are both stunning. I never saw this movie in the theaters (I wish I had) and so have only seen it in the past on videocasette. Now that we own the DVD we can see it in its lush widescreen glory, and I have to say it is a treat. Part of the movie’s charm is in the fantasy setting and the world it takes place in, and director Richard Donner, along with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro fill every frame with wonderful images from edge to edge.

What’s unique about this movie, for a fantasy film, is that it features almost no special effects. There are a couple scenes with the actors wearing special contacts and one blue-screen shot I can think of, and a couple other little tricks and some slick editing, but for the most part the movie relies on the performances and the script to relay the magic in the film. There are a lot of stunts and battles, but the movie doesn’t need lots of flash and hocus pocus to tell its story. I think that is part of why it has aged so well, music aside. There’s nothing in it that doesn’t still work today, really.

I feel like this movie is a bit of lost gem. People talk about Donner’s other movies from the eighties all the time. Superman and Superman II (well most of the good bits anyhow) and Goonies are all still movies I had people checking out at Blockbuster all the time. But this movie seems to have faded from memory. Which is too bad, because it’s a great story and a fun movie. I feel like it should be remembered in the same way as Neverending Story and Time Bandits, but nobody ever seems to bring up Ladyhawke in conversation in the circles I travel in. I think they should.

September 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment