Very loosely adapted from the immortal novel by Alexandre Dumas, director Randall Wallace’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) is the captivating adventure yarn that rarely takes itself seriously. This is all to the good, as far as this reviewer is concerned. Liberally borrowing characters and plot elements from Dumas' D'Artagnan romances as well as The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Wallace's revisionist celebration of Dumas heralds back to a time honoured tradition in American movies that treats both world history and literary masterworks with more gentile glamour than reverence for accuracy.
In this latter pursuit, Wallace is most blessed with having the French court of Louis XIV as his luminous backdrop. Candle lit to sumptuous perfection and glowingly photographed by Peter Suschzitsky, The Man In The Iron Mask never falters in its own mythology. As such, the screenplay by Wallace quickly escalates into one heck of a good roller coaster ride, its clipping pace and marvellous acting elevating the exercise to grand entertainment.
The film stars Leonardo Di Caprio in the dual role as King Louis XIV and his twin brother, Philippe. In the original novel the King is at first represented as unsympathetic, but then gradually evolves into the noble monarch that his loyalists would want him to be. In the celebrated 1929 film, Philippe is depicted as the pawn in a sinister plot to destroy the crown. However, in Randall's revisionist take, King Louis is both unscrupulous and without moral ethics - a ruler destined for his own fall.
Separated at birth by their mother, Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud), Philippe has long been imprisoned in an isolated fortress and made to wear a horrifically confining iron mask to conceal his uncanny resemblance to the king. Anne harbours a dark secret from both her sons and her lover, D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne); that he - not the former King is their father.
Meanwhile, in another part of France, Athos (John Malkovich) is a retired musketeer whose son, Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard) is courting the fair, Christine (Judith Godreche). However, when Louis decides to have Christine for himself, he deliberately sends Raoul to the front line of battle, knowing that he will be killed.Enraged by this obvious treachery and the loss of his only son, Athos confides the secret of Phillipe’s birthright to his fellow musketeers, Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) and Arimus (Jeremy Irons).
Together, these three comrades rescue Philippe from the prison, free him of the mask and begin a rigorous training in the mannerisms at court. The plan is to kidnap Louis – whom they realize is a danger and a threat to the nation, and replace him with Philippe, who is humble, kind-hearted and pure of spirit and faith. If they succeed, France will be to the good. If they fail, their lives will be at stake.
Of course, the fly in this ointment is D'Artagnan who long ago seduced the Queen to produce these two rival heirs, but who knows nothing of his own complicity or Philippe's survival all these years. At a lavish ball, Porthos, Arimus and Athos taunt the King with fleeting images of the iron mask that eventually wreak havoc on the King's sanity. He retires in a sweat to his bed chamber where the Musketeers await to carry out the next length of their well laid plan.
Unfortunately, D'Artagnan has found his former colleagues out. In the ensuing confrontation, and epic swordplay Philippe is ordered back to his prison by Louis. Athos, Arimus and Porthos break into Philippe's cell and charge the Musketeer army that has been standing guard. The King is defeated and forced into exile, but not before he kills D'Artagnan who is finally told that both the King and Philippe are his sons. Teeming with lusty full-blooded melancholy and stellar examples of masterful swordplay, The Man In The Iron Mask harks back to the best of Errol Flynn swashbucklers, while offering a refreshing take on the old cliché ‘all for one and one for all.’
I can recall going to the theatre to see this movie with trepidation in 1998, since Leonardo DiCaprio was then, and to large degree remains in my estimation, hardly my kind of actor. Having come from the overriding - and arguably undeserved accolades afforded James Cameron's Titanic, DiCaprio seemed to me all hype and zero substance. Therefore, my expectation for this film were more aligned with the overall arc of storytelling rather than centered on individual performance.
So, it is saying much that I found and continue to find DiCaprio's dual starring role in this movie one of its most compelling features. True, the supporting cast continue to outrank him; most notably Byrnes, Malkovich and Irons - but DiCaprio holds his own with these titans and is most convincing throughout the story.
MGM/Fox Home Video's Blu-Ray disc rectifies the considerable sins committed by MGM Home Entertainment's standard DVD release of this film that inexplicably toggled back and forth between a progressive and an interlaced transfer. Colors that were bold on the DVD are much more so on the Blu-Ray with fine detail taking a quantum leap forward on the Blu-Ray for an image that is visually resplendent. Flesh tones are infinitely more natural on the Blu-Ray while color in general just seems to pop. Truly, there's nothing to complain about.
The audio has been given its upgrade to a DTS lossless master with predictable sonic improvements. Extras include a director’s audio commentary, a making of featurette, alternate mask prototypes and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Fox has also included MGM's original flipper DVD as part of their packaging. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)