FILM REVIEW: Ladyhawke (1985)

Ladyhawke (USA, 1985)
Directed by Richard Donner

Starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leo McKern

When it comes to 1980s fantasy, there are three broad categories into which films can fall. There are those like Flesh & Blood, which get the balance between substance and silliness spot on, marrying Machiavellian mercenaries to grin-inducing battle scenes. There are those like Excalibur, which take themselves so seriously that they're fatally dull. And there are those that are totally, utterly, and enjoyably silly - and into that category goes Ladyhawke.Ladyhawke is of historical interest due to its place in Richard Donner's career. The fiasco surrounding Superman II, on which he was replaced mid-shoot by Richard Lester, had thrown Donner's career off-course: he had to watch Superman II and III take huge amounts of money while he delivered flops like Inside Movies and The Toy. But either side of this film, he found himself very much in mainstream favour again, first with The Goonies and later with Lethal Weapon. It is interesting that a director whose place in history has been defined by blockbusters (including, of course, The Omen) should be capable of making something so delightfully odd in the midst of two more rounded and confident efforts.Like many 1980s fantasies, there are aspects of Ladyhawke to which time has not been kind. The most obvious of these is Andrew Powell's soundtrack, which was nominated for a Saturn award in 1985 but has since become regarded in some quarters as one of the worst ever composed. After Toto's contributions to Dune, it became more common for pop groups or composers to score films, due to the selling potential of the groups and the relatively cheap cost of synthesised music. But Powell's efforts go just too far even to be enjoyed ironically, with its overproduction and bouncy pop timbre frequently jarring with the quieter moments.The score is one aspect of Ladyhawke which confirms its inherent silliness, even before we get to the meat of the story. Another such aspect is its visuals, which manage to look lavish and professional while still feeling ropey and cheap. The film is shot by Vittorio Storaro, who famously shot Apocalypse Now - something which is evident in the multitude of blood-red, beautiful sunsets which are central to the plot. But in amongst the terrific scenes of frozen lakes, dark forests and crisp skylines, there are numerous scenes which look like they were filmed in a hurry, treading unintentionally close to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.This feeling of cutting corners is reinforced by the paucity of special effects. For a film in which people metamorphose into animals on a daily basis, the special effects of Ladyhawke are coy to say the least. Apart from a few shots where Michelle Pfeiffer's eyes change shape in close-up, all the big transitions happen off-screen; on several occasions Matthew Broderick leaves the room just beforehand, as though the actors had to go off-stage to change costumes. While Donner wouldn't have had access to the CG wizardry we take for granted, there was plenty of scope in the physical effects of the time to achieve something a little more palpable. Only four years earlier Rick Baker produced the definitive werewolf transformation for John Landis, in a film with half of Ladyhawke's total budget.Added to this shortcoming we have a number of plot holes which either confuse or produce unwanted tittering. First there is the problem of clothes: Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer keep the same outfits throughout, but there's not much effort to keep the clothes together when one of the pair is in animal form. Then there is the question of memory. The film borrows the horror device of the person having no memory of what they did as a beast - so how come the hawk remembers to stay with her master, or the wolf not to eat his mistress? Finally, there are several blatant continuity errors. We are told that Pfeiffer appears as an eagle whenever it is daylight, and yet there are at least two scenes where it's daylight and yet she is still there. At least when Shrek half-inched the plot, it was consistent throughout.But in spite of these problems, Ladyhawke is a consistently entertaining little romp. Like Logan's Run nine years earlier, it's only when you stop trying to take it seriously that its ideas and emotional impact bubble to the surface. And like Logan's Run, this transition is cemented via a dominant performance by a great actor - not Peter Ustinov, but Leo McKern.Most famous for playing Horace Rumpole in the long-running TV series Rumpole of the Bailey, McKern had courted cult status at various points in his career: as veteran reporter Bill McGuire in The Day The Earth Caught Fire, as a recurring Number 2 in The Prisoner, and in his previous outing with Donner as a mad archaeologist in The Omen. But whereas that last appearance was a silly cameo in an otherwise seriously creepy film, here McKern brings weight and gumption to an otherwise facile concoction. Like Ustinov before him, he puts a brake on excessive silliness, if only for a moment, in order to steer the viewer towards the emotional heart of the film.Not only is McKern's delivery well-suited to disguising exposition, but he illuminates some cracking lines in the script. Most of the wisecracks go to Broderick, who is on very fine form; his soliloquys with God about telling the truth and resisting temptation are guaranteed to raise a smile. But McKern's timing is note-perfect, as he waits for a knight to fall right through the drawbridge before quipping: "Always walk on the left side!". Best of all comes when Broderick brings him the hawk after it has been wounded by an arrow. Having been told that he can't eat it, McKern bellows: "What? Is it Lent again already?!"While McKern's performance is the icing on the cake, the other major players are also firing on all cylinders. Rutger Hauer seems naturally suited to the historical romp, whether as a heroic figure here or as an antihero in Flesh & Blood. His typically brilliant screen presence, being equally charming and threatening, suits the personality of Navarre as a knight tormented by the woman he loves but cannot have. And while Michelle Pfeiffer's hair may be straight out of a pop video, she too fits her character very nicely. Her beauty conveys both the innate sense of mystery about Isabeau and the vulnerability of her predicament. She's so convincing, in fact, that you keep recognising her facial features in those of the hawk.Having these two charismatic performances goes some way in making the romance at the heart of the film feel believable. Somehow the grandiosity of the setting gives the relationship more weight, making it feel like there is more at stake than with similarly inseparable lovers in more mainstream rom-coms. The story is an interesting variation on the age-old tale of two people destined to be together but cursed to be apart, and for all the ridiculous elements within the central conceit it does end up pulling you in.This emotional pull is most evident in two scenes towards the end. The first occurs when Philippe finds Navarre lying next to Isabeau as a wolf. The sun begins to rise, Isabeau begins to change, and for a split second both see each other with human eyes. Navarre reaches out to touch Isabeau, only for her to change and fly away, leaving him beating the earth in frustrated rage. The other comes during the solar eclipse where the two are reunited and the curse is broken. The slow pacing and distance between them prior to their first real contact reinforces the strength of the bond between them.Ladyhawke also has its fair share of good action. Considering Donner's bad feelings towards Richard Lester (who can blame him?), it is ironic that his action sequences, in this film at least, take after Lester's finest work in The Three and Four Musketeers. The fight scenes have some pretty inventive slapstick and Broderick doing all manner of acrobatics, while Hauer gets to swashbuckle and head-butt to his heart's content. The highlight comes in the climactic fight in the church, ending with Hauer throwing his huge sword over several yards right into the heart of John Wood's scenery-chewing Bishop.Ladyhawke may not have aged as well as Flesh & Blood or Legend, but it remains a definite guilty pleasure and a bona fide cult film. Its flaws are all in plain sight - the soundtrack, the silly plot, the special effects - and yet none of them can completely eclipse the sheer enjoyment that it brings. If anything these flaws serve to make it more endearing, and more fun than mainstream fare like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Donner would make more consistent features after this, but for pure and simple fun it takes some beating.

Verdict: Silly but sublimely entertaining


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