Title: Ladyhawke (1985) IMDb
Director: Richard Donner
Lead Actors: Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Wood
Score Composer: Andrew Powell
Length: 121 minutes
Rating (US): PG-13
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young pickpocket joins up with a knight and lady as the lovers try to defeat a curse that was set upon them by a corrupt bishop; a curse that causes the knight to become a wolf at the setting of the sun, and the lady to become a hawk at the sun’s rising, so that they are forever apart despite traveling together.
Reason for Watching: Well, the premise has long intrigued me (specifically, the nature of the curse); also, the 1980s had a peculiar take on fantasy stories that was often really neat (ex. The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, Big Trouble in Little China, Clash of the Titans, The Last Unicorn, The Secret of NIMH, to name a few great ones).
Movie Re-watchability: I suspect it’s quite rewatchable. The pacing may have some issues and Broderick can at times be annoying, but the movie looks great, Hauer and Pfeiffer are both magnetic presences, and the concept is intriguing.
Director Re-watchability: Ah, Richard Donner. Director of perhaps the most inspirational superhero movie, the original Superman (1978). Figures he would know a thing or two about romanticism, idealistic characters with fantastic destinies, and how to photograph a good-looking picture. Of course, he also directed The Omen (1976), a horror movie which is well-regarded but does not interest me. I suppose his filmography sort of speaks for him: The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, Scrooged, Radio Flyer. He’s got range, for sure. Perhaps the most important thing is that he treats the fantasy seriously. There is comedy, perhaps a tad too much from Broderick, but the curse of the lovers is never made light of. This isn’t his best or most entertaining movie by a long shot, but it’s still my favorite. Then again, I’m a bit biased towards the subject matter.
Recommendation: Yes! Particularly for those who like fantasy, medieval stuff, and chivalric romance. While it certainly has a number of flaws and some lost potential, I’m going to make the argument that it is still a good movie, unique in its flavor, and generally underrated.
I might as well start with Ladyhawke’s most well-known and controversial element: its musical score. My friend Urania calls it “the most beautiful example of ’80s orchestral-rock-synth fantasy soundtrack ever!” For my friend Jubilare it almost renders a good movie unwatchable. As I casually peruse Internet opinion (so educated and dignified it is *cough*), I find viewers similarly divided to extremes, but almost overwhelmingly against it. The accusations tend to run thusly: 1) the synthesized beats are too anachronistic, 2) their modernity jars you out of the stately drama and reverie the movie tries to invoke in the viewer, 3) the synth-pop parts of the score also contrast too jarringly with the more classical orchestral parts, 4) the score is so poorly used that it often evokes emotions opposite to what the dramatic scenes are striving for.
The first objection is irrelevant, since even orchestral and classic music is inherently anachronistic for any story set before, oh, the 16th century at least. It doesn’t matter if the instruments are modern, just how they are used. Now, for my part, I confess I do enjoy the music, both on its own and in conjunction with much of the movie; yet I also acknowledge the legitimacy of many of the complaints against it. When the beat drives a bit too hard, or when an electric guitar suddenly jumps in, the chivalric magic is lost, if only temporarily. When Navarre, in anguish because his lady is near death, takes on a band of enemy soldiers with grim anger and resolve, and then synthesized pop happiness kicks, you half expect the Breakfast Club to start grooving sideways into the picture in their flannel shirts, backpacks, and big hair. It can be distracting, to say the least.
Yet there is no denying that the main theme is beautiful and fully appropriate to the lovers’ plight. And the more successful blendings of the two musical styles do yield some strong emotional moments; when we’re getting excited because Navarre is preparing to lay the beatdown on some annoying baddies, the synth-rock only makes him seem more badass. Not quite “Rock into Mordor” levels, but close. Even the melodramatic pop ballad parts can be oddly suited to the deeply passionate, and somewhat illogical, emotions and honor at play in chivalric romances like this. So in the end, I enjoy the score of the music and find it enhances some of the emotions and much of the fun I have with the movie, but I do wish that more care had been put into the integration of the classical and synth-pop-rock elements with each other, and with the content of the movie.
Rutger Hauer as Captain Navarre makes one of the best movie knights I’ve ever seen, even with his American accent (which is an odd choice, considering he’s Dutch and the setting is clearly France). Steely-eyed, dangerous yet honorable to his core, he is determined to break the curse on him and Isabeau by slaying the evil Bishop, or die in the attempt. For him, there are no other options. It’s not just his own pain that is too much for him, but that Isabeau should be forever condemned to this “half-life.” This determination at times veers close to vengeful obsession, which is all the more frightening for Mouse (Broderick) because Isabeau cannot be present in her human form as a soothing presence. When she is present, though, it’s easy to see why Navarre loves her. She is gentle in all forms of the word: noble, elegant, soft-hearted, kind, affectionate, considerate of others. Their love is genuinely touching, and there’s never a moment you aren’t willing Navarre to bash down the gates of the bishop’s castle, slay that demon-worshipping heretic, and ride off happily with his lady.
If only the knight and his lady had more screentime, with less of it being stolen by Broderick’s teenage pickpocket, Mouse. Mouse is really the movie’s main character, with a fairly clear character arc and the more dialogue than all the other characters put together. The story is mostly about Mouse becoming so dedicated to the lovers that he grows out of his selfish cowardice and begins to sacrifice himself willingly, eagerly for their good. But he’s an awkward representative for the story. He’s too much Ferris Bueller, too far removed from the fairy story setting, and there are numerous times when his ironic asides and flat American accent took me out of the story.
It’s not that Mouse is a horrible character or that Broderick is particularly bad in the role—the real surprise was actually how often the character worked, when I didn’t expect him to. Even with his amusing (if very corny) asides to God and himself, it’s clear that Mouse comes to care deeply for Navarre and Isabeau. His manner is often irreverent, but his earnestness, when it appears, feels genuine. The best use of him is when he begins to carry messages between the two lovers. Since at any given time one of them is an animal and the other cannot remember their animal life, it is nearly impossible for them to communicate, but the presence of Mouse emends that. Unfortunately, the lovers oddly don’t give him any messages to send to each other, leaving Mouse to lie and invent love poetry and the like that is supposedly from the other lover. I get how it fits Mouse’s character to do so, but it doesn’t fit that Navarre and Isabeau wouldn’t save him the trouble of lying by giving him truthful things to say. They just smile and gaze into the distance, leaving Mouse the next morning or evening to put words in their mouths. It’s a frustrating missed opportunity, all the drama and romance that could be got from how the lovers make use of this newfound method of communication. Because even while Mouse doesn’t invent things that Navarre and Isabeau probably wouldn’t say, he’s still making assumptions, and his messages are still lies, and that bugs me. What worth is love if not built on truth, even an unspoken truth?
Mostly the film looks great. Frequent wide shots show off the beautiful countryside, with its crumbling castles, dark forests, and icebound lakes, and the costumes and sets manage to look reasonably lived-in without getting so “gritty” as to lose their storybook charm. Navarre’s family sword is awesome, and his steed Goliath, a mighty black Frisian, is one cool chivalric horse. The only oddity I noticed was that in certain scenes, the camera seems to have a filter over it that makes the top third of the picture a saturated reddish; it’s almost like the director of photography is trying to over-emphasize Magic Hour. This is only distracting when it looks obviously faked in post-production; otherwise, the film is beautiful for being shot so often at sunrise and sunset (or made to look as if it were).
One scene about halfway through perfectly captures everything that is excellent about Ladyhawke. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably know what I’m about to say. Sunrise on the frozen lake, the lovers seeing each other as man and woman for a slow, golden moment, in agonizing silence but for the tenderest of music, gasping in surprise and desire, their fingers about to entwine, until the fuzzy morning light washes her away into hawk form, and Navarre roars in heartbreak at the sky. You could watch just those three minutes, without knowing much of the movie, and it’d be just as powerful. In fact, if you want to, here it is. I won’t stop you. It’s that good.
It’s true that no other point in the movie matches that one for raw emotion and movie magic. There are other good moments, and some weak ones. The pacing is a bit slow at times, not always focusing on the lovers as much as it should. Navarre and Isabeau don’t get very much character development; rather, they seem to be powerful embodiments of the Knight and Lady archetypes. But due to their actors’ charisma and skill, they feel almost real and almost dreamlike, in a beautiful paradox. The climax, when they confront the evil bishop, and Navarre engages in a long and fairly realistic swordfight with the corrupt Captain of the Guard, is exciting and truly moving. The lovers’ final embrace, their joyous laughter, their inability to speak because of their bliss at holding each other, is rejuvenating and satisfying. They earn their happy ending, their eucatastrophe, and I was darned glad to see it.