Having escaped from the dreaded dungeons of Aquilla, petty thief Philipe The Mouse falls in with a strange captain and his hawk. It turns out this noble knight is the victim of a curse that he will spend the night as a wolf while his true love, the Lady Isabeau, must spend the day as that hawk. But unknowingly this lowly criminal may have presented them with the chance to finally break the curse.
An elegant, hugely romantic fairy-tale with an exceptionally good cast and a sturdy Hollywood director, strange then that this gothic fable tends to be forgotten. Here is the kind of elaborate, gothic tragedy that fuels Germanic operas and Heavy Metal ballads — the lovers who can remain together but forever be apart. Richard Donner makes some wise choices with the material, letting the magical elements fade into the background of a murky medieval realism, the fact of the curse more important than how it works. His European locations tang with real-life, and are only gently spotted with glimmers of mysticism. We are not talking about the juvenile tang of swords and sorcery, Donner is after rapture not thunder, tellingly keeping his eye on the two lovers great adversity.
The director also manages to avoid sentimentality by viewing the story through the eyes of the sprightly, jabbering Matthew Broderick, a self-serving scamp induced to break back into a dungeon he was far happier breaking out of. A young Michelle Pfieffer makes an ideal romantic ideal — it is the lascivious desires she inspires in local but decidedly non-conformist bishop (John Wood) that is the source of the trouble to begin with. Leo McKern also turns up to give a sweetly comedic performance as a monk on the side of good (the Church don’t come out of this too well). Only Rutger Hauer seems less at ease with the straight heroic role, his smile, always bordering close to a sneer, is too layered with threat to sweep ladies off ready heels. He is not cut from the heroic mould.
It’s fairly predictable and small-scale (the special effects are kept to a bare minimum and still landed an Oscar nomination) but in its vivid setting and compelling story is a quiet gem.
This is a criminally neglected piece of good gothic fairy tale fun.