Blu-ray Review: The Man in the Iron Mask [Collector's Edition] | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, June 4th, 2020  

The Man in the Iron Mask [Collector’s Edition]

Studio: Shout! Factory

Oct 25, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The Man in the Iron Mask is one of the more enigmatic mysteries of 18th Century France, which to this day possesses no concrete answer. Also known under the name Marchioly, the actual man in the iron mask was an unidentified prisoner held in a number of French prisons over a 34-year span, whose veiled story eventually became a lightning rod for conspiracy theories throughout the following centuries. The most popular (and most relevant) theory, first posited by Voltaire in Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, is that this man was the illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV. This theory had no foundation, and could have easily been a ruse by Voltaire, as his outspoken nature as a satirical polemicist often found him in hot water battling the status quo.

Regardless of the actual nature of the man and his lifelong imprisonment, the legend of this anonymous prisoner was strong enough source material for famed author Alexandre Dumas. A variation on the character is present in the last volume of The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, his final installment of The d'Artagnan Romances (his seminal Three Musketeer series based on another historical figure, Charles de Batz-Castelmore d'Artagnan). This story has been revised, reimagined, and regurgitated in novels, comics, television, and the silver screen numerous times throughout the years, with one of the more famous (or infamous) variations being released in 1998 by United Artists.

Still riding the wave of success (and an Academy Award nomination) he earned through writing Braveheart, Randall Wallace chose this film as his directorial debut, for which he also wrote the screenplay. Shot on-location in France, the film gathered together highly prominent on-screen and off-screen talents at various heights in their careers and was produced on a $35 million budget. The resulting film and its source novel bare significant differences from one another, and several historical individuals and events presented in the final cut are heavily fictionalized. The film premiered on March 13, 1998 to a largely negative critical response, lambasting the casting and narrative choices of the filmmakers. Though torn critically, The Man in the Iron Mask was undoubtedly financially successful, pulling in over $183 million at the box office.

The story begins with Paris, France verging on complete starvation. While King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio) is outwardly compassionate toward the plights of his subjects, he is far more interested in warmongering, amassing obscene wealth, and seducing women. When the noblewoman Christine Bellefort (Judith Godrèche) catches his eye, Louis takes measures to separate her from her fiancé Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard), the son of the renowned retired musketeer Athos (John Malkovich). When Raoul is killed on the frontlines, Athos bands together with his former compatriots Aramis (Jeremy Irons) and Porthos (Gérard Depardieu) to supplant Louis. Their former companion D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne) refuses to participate, citing his sacred oath of honor to his king as unbreakable. However, a secret identical twin of the king, who had been hidden at birth and is now rotting away in the bowels of the Bastille, may end up saving the musketeers (and likewise France) from the grip of the egotistical autocrat.

DiCaprio would win a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Screen Couple for his interactions as royal twins in the film, with many citing the film’s success being solely reliant on DiCaprio’s post-Titanic popularity. To that end, those critics are mostly correct. The acting and accents from the international cast are inconsistent and jarring, the melodrama is heavily mannerist and thickly blanketed in cliches, and the score cannot shut up for two seconds for a breath of silence to be experienced. However (and I write this without a sliver of shame), I will endlessly declare my absolute love for The Man in the Iron Mask.

DiCaprio is absolutely (and horribly) miscast in his dual roles, with his delivery and presence contrasting harshly against his co-stars; though there are definite moments of performance greatness by Irons, Depardieu, Byrne, and Malkovich (who did not deserve his Golden Raspberry nomination for this role). The story jumps around as whimsically as it likes, creating and abandoning plot threads with disturbing regularity, its structure solely dependent on a consistent stream of shark jump plotting. However, though numerous glaring issues throughout the movie make little sense, with some being truly horrible choices (like a CGI sword being thrown through fountain water to perfectly stab an assailant through the chest), it all amounts to a roaringly good time.

Shout! Factory has released a special edition Blu-ray for the film’s 20th anniversary, and besides the lackluster cover art (which is reversible with the original cover design), it is loaded down with a bunch of supplemental goodies. This 4K restoration is buttressed by brand new interviews with producer Paul Hitchcock and production designer Anthony Pratt, highlighting the process and inspiration of many of the film’s key scenes and locations. New audio commentary by Wallace is also supported by a “Director’s Take” featurette, with the writer/director breaking down the history and process of making the film from his first-hand accounts. A historical video essay Myth and The Musketeers is paired with a behind-the-scenes featurette that was produced in time with the film’s original theatrical release, with concept designs of the titular mask and the film’s original theatrical trailer thrown in as added bonuses.

The joyful journey through this bundle of ham and cheese cannot be equaled in any other work. While the production and costume design are always stunning and deeply beautiful, the cast chew the scenery with reckless abandon. While homages to previous Three Musketeer incarnations engulf many production aspects, the film is so utterly romantic in its ideas of honor and chivalry, that it cannot be seen as anything else but a fantasy. But that’s completely fine by me, and this rendition of The Man in the Iron Mask should be part of any cheeky cinephile's collection.



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