By Nick Krewen


There's only one way to maximize your fortune in snagging Titanic  star Leonardo DiCaprio for the lead in your movie: by having two of him.

So those fans of the American hearthrob who can't get enough DiCaprio will be thrilled about his dual leading role Randall Wallace's adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' classic The Man In The Iron Mask.

DiCaprio plays his mirror characters -- the arrogant, morally bankrupt King Louis XIV and his imprisoned, long-suffering brother Philippe -- to the hilt. As Louis, the impeccably manicured DiCaprio portrays him as an arrogant, heartless despot whose cunning constantly keeps him one step from death's door. As Philippe, he embodies the milk of human kindness, offering a deep-rooted humility I'm not sure I'd share had I just been released from a six-year prison term of having my head wrapped in what amounts to an iron chastity belt.

Although DiCaprio plays both roles convincingly, it is his stellar and accomplished supporting cast that elevates his performance. Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu are superb as Aramis, Athos and Porthos -- the Three Musketeers -- as is Gabriel Byrne as D'Artagnan, the honorary Musketeer and Captain of the Royal French Guard.

Set in 1662, France is on the edge of ruin. The peasants are starving, in the mood for revolt, and King Louis XIV is turning a blind eye to pursue his own pleasures. Of the four Musketeers, only two of them -- the protective D'Artagnan (Byrne) and the priest Aramis (Irons) still directly serve The King. The other two are retired, with Porthos (Depardieu) bedding every wench in sight and Athos (Malkovich) preparing for the imminent wedding of his son Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard) and Christine (Judith Godreche).

Life gets complicated when Louis takes a fancy to Christine, inadvertently sending Raoul to his death and unwittingly sentencing Aramis to his. Disillusioned with their leader, the four Musketeers meet secretly to plan his secession, but D'Artagnan will have none of it, declaring his allegiance to Louis.

Faster than you can cry "One for all, and all for one!," the original trio proceeds with their scheme, breaking into an isolated prison and freeing Philippe -- the King's long-lost twin whose face was encased in an iron mask at His Majesty's request -- with the intention of staging a switch at an upcoming ball.

Nothing ever goes as smoothly as it seems, especially with D'Artagnan as a worthy adversary, making for some interesting conflicts and dire consequences as the film reaches its dramatic and tragic climax.

The Man In The Iron Mask  is no stranger to Hollywood filmmakers, with co-producer, director and writer Randall Wallace offering the fourth cinematic version of Dumas' 1850 novel. Although the writer of Braveheart  acquits himself admirably with this entertaining adaptation that features carefully scripted characters and epic flourishes, there are a few flaws with his first-time direction. In the scene where DiCaprio's Philippe is finally unmasked after six long years of interrupted hygiene, his face has nary a blemish. In another scene set at the Royal Ball where the switch is made, the King's mistress suddenly disappears without cause or explanation.

Thank God for the cast in this tale of honor, love, loyalty and redemption. Gerard Depardieu, appearing in his 102nd film, is a delight as the comically ribald Porthos, while John Malkovich broods effectively as the mourning Athos. Jeremy Irons brings a quiet dignity to his role as the conspiring Aramis, while Gabriel Byrne's D'Artagnan suffers honorably as man caught between a master he doesn't respect, the forbidden love of Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud, mouth creases suitably stretched in constant sadness) and the loyalty that friendship demands.

Ironically, there's a hidden star in The Man In The Iron Mask: costume designer James Acheson, whose period garb adds a sense of visual style and colorful grandeur to France's already picturesque landscape.




An MGM/United Artists Pictures Release. Directed by Randall Wallace. Opens March 13.



-- Nick Krewen




THANKS: Beth Rimmels, Philip Bast

© 1998, 1999 Nick Krewen



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