Starring: Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leo McKern, John Wood.
Captain Etienne Navarre is a man on whose shoulders lies a cruel curse. Punished for loving each other, Navarre must become a wolf by night whilst his lover, Lady Isabeau, takes the form of a hawk by day. Together, with the thief Philippe Gaston, they must try to overthrow the corrupt Bishop and in doing so break the spell.
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“Ladyhawke” belongs to that realm of fantasy film that was so popular in the eighties: the mystical world of swords, sorcery and synthesizers. Consequently, it isn’t for everyone, but for those who like a bit of chivalry and romance, it’s an underappreciated treat.
The movie begins with Philippe “The Mouse” Gaston, a pickpocket who becomes he first inmate ever to escape the Fortress of Aquila. On the run, Philippe meets Etienne Navarre, a mysterious knight who travels everywhere with a hawk. In exchange for protecting him, Navarre demands that Philippe show him how to break back into Aquila so that he may kill the Bishop. When the hawk is injured, Philippe must take her to be treated by a reclusive monk. It is from him that Philippe learns the reason for Navarre’s quest. Two years earlier, the Bishop became obsessed with a beautiful woman named Isabeau, but she only had eyes for Navarre. Mad with jealousy, the Bishop called upon the Devil to curse the lovers. By day, Isabeau is the hawk; by night, she becomes human and Navarre transforms into a wolf. Only at sunrise and sunset do they see one another in their human form, and then only for a matter of seconds. The monk is convinced there is a way to break the curse, but if Navarre kills the Bishop, he and Isabeau will never be free of the spell.
Director Richard Donner creates a mythic atmosphere, even though this story isn’t a fairytale along the same lines as “Legend” or “Labyrinth.” It’s grounded more in reality, but it’s the reality of medieval France, so it’s still far enough removed from our world to give it that mystical edge. Granted, it’s the sanitized version of medieval times that we see in countless movies, but a love story is a bit easier to swallow when we don’t suspect the lovers of having lice and plague.
“Ladyhawke” was written by Edward Khmara, Michael Thomas, Tom Mankiewicz, and David Peoples. It can be a bad sign when you have multiple screenwriters for a project. Artistic tastes vary, and it’s often true that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Luckily, that doesn’t seem to have been a problem with this movie. The dialogue can be clever, particularly when it comes to Philippe’s monologues, or poignantly absent. One of the best scenes passes without any dialogue: as the sun rises, the human lovers can only gaze helplessly at one another before Isabeau once again transforms into a hawk.
The actors all play their parts with sincerity, never settling for just playing one-dimensional stock characters. Matthew Broderick is charming as Philippe, serving as comic relief without becoming irritating. His character is also interesting in that he frequently talks to God, but his tone is so conversational that this never becomes melodramatic. In the role of the monk, Leo McKern provides some comic relief of his own, but like Broderick, he fleshes out his character with real emotional complexity. Despite looking clownish at first, we soon learn that the monk is a man weighed down by guilt. John Wood plays the Bishop of Aquila as a stone-cold monster hiding behind a mask of piety. In that way, he actually serves as counterpart to Broderick. The Bishop’s occupation is a front for his cruelty and Satanism, whereas “sinner” Philippe is actually an infinitely better person.
As the lovers, Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer have a unique challenge: although they are the center of an epic love story, they only have two scenes together in the whole course of the movie. It’s only in the final five minutes of the movie that our lovers even exchange dialogue, but since Hauer and Pfeiffer sell every moment of romance, we almost don’t realize that they spend so little time together. Hauer’s portrayal of Navarre is especially touching; although famed for his ferocity in battle, he completely crumbles in the presence of the woman he loves. Look out also for a young Alfred Molina as a wolf-hunter the Bishop hires to exterminate Navarre.
Despite being a story about two people who regularly transform into animals, “Ladyhawke” is surprisingly short on creature effects. Perhaps it was a matter of budget, or just a purely stylistic choice. As it is, the makeup only goes as far as special contact lenses. Otherwise, the transformations are accomplished through creative editing, and actually, it’s more elegant that way. Take the scene in which a human Isabeau plummets from a tower, just as the sun rises. Her scream of terror transitions into a hawk’s cry, and in a flutter of wings, the metamorphosis is complete and she flies away, unharmed. This is far more effective in its way than an elaborate transformation sequence.
The lovely cinematography by Vittorio Storaro deserves special mention. For the most part, “Ladyhawke” takes place outside, treating us to gorgeous mountain scenery and beautiful sunsets.
One thing about “Ladyhawke” that seems to divide people is the score by Andrew Powell. Whether or not you like it may depend on whether or not you like eighties music in general, and admittedly, some parts of it sound strangely anachronistic. However, its “eighties” vibe has a certain appeal, and the gentle orchestral pieces – such as the love theme – are really lovely.
It’s nice to see a movie that isn’t afraid to be a chivalric love story of the romance novel variety, with a bit of magic thrown in. Artistic and sweet, “Ladyhawke” has a way of capturing your affection.