Movie Review: “Ladyhawke” (1985)

Bueller, Bueller…

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.

Key Thoughts

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.

I love this picture. But it doesn’t exactly scream “touching chivalric romance.”

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.

Sweet sunrise, she is beautiful! (and has kind of a modern haircut, but no matter)

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.

He probably just misses Sloane.

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).

Awesomesauce.

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.

Never go in against a wolf-knight when death…er, love…is on the line.
Because the man is epic.

Credits: Screencaps beginning in pdvd from angelfish_icons
All others from fanpop

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

25 thoughts on “Movie Review: “Ladyhawke” (1985)”

  1. I agree with you that the ’80s had a strange set of fantasy films. They all tried hard, but I’m not sure any quite succeeded. I really enjoy “Ladyhawke” (I am a huge Richard Donner fan, and you really should give “The Omen” a try!), but you hit upon the two problems I have with the film. I most definitely do not like the musical score. I can’t stand synth-pop in general, and when combined with a medieval fantasy, it just does not work for me. It’s not so much that it’s “modern” (now I’d say dated), but that the style just does not fit with the “magic” that’s on screen. The theatrical release of “Legend” had the same problem (thank goodness the director’s cut restored Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful original score). The second problem is that Matthew Broderick plays his character like he’s in the ’80s. That may work in a movie like “A Knight’s Tale,” but no one else in “Ladyhawke” has modern sensibilities. By the way, Rutger Hauer makes a fantastic hero; it’s ashamed he spend most of his career playing villains. I agree with you on the cinematography (even the weird filtering). Good review!

    1. Actually, I think the ’80s was one of the most fruitful times for fantasy movies, and few that came after have captured a magical atmosphere quite as well as, say, The Neverending Story, Big Trouble in Little China, The Princess Bride (pretty near perfect movie), or even Labyrinth. Those are all really fine, entertaining movies, that are unique to themselves and don’t suffer from the cookie-cutter aesthetics and themes that have largely prevailed since (with some obvious exceptions). As for the music, that’s pretty up to personal taste. I think it can be a lot of fun, and the ’80s music works brilliantly in Neverending Story and The Princess Bride. Parts of the Ladyhawke score are brilliant, but it doesn’t always come together.

      Broderick…yeah. As I discussed above. At times he actually works okay, but for the most part feels like a glaring anachronism. Part of it is his voice, which is so flat and nasally. Part of it may be the direction given to him. If the part had been written straighter, and Donner had directed him to lay off the lame jokes and play it subtler, truer, than Broderick could have been quite effective, I think. He’s a good actor, he just has to be used right.

      I haven’t seen Legend yet, but I want to. As for The Omen, well, I’m just not much interested in horror movies, unless the horror is just one part of a larger story (as in Pan’s Labyrinth or Alien).

      Aye, this movie and Blade Runner make me wish for more great movies featuring Rutger Hauer in his prime. Mostly as a knight.

      1. Oh, the ’80s definitely was a very fruitful decade for fantasy. Yes, “The Princess Bride” is perfect (other than a couple somewhat fakey looking sets, like the fire swamp) and I really appreciate what the other films tried to do. But each one had some element that threw it off. For instance, “Legend” had the villain’s henchmen making silly (and very modernish) jokes that were incongruous with the tone of the film. “Willow” is another example of a really good fantasy film where the elements don’t quite fit together perfectly. It really wasn’t until “Lord of the Rings” that a fantasy movie (other than “The Princess Bride”) was flawless.

        1. The Neverending Story was pretty near flawless, I think — very few fantasy movies have so heavy and immersive an atmosphere. My only real complaint is that it’s so relentlessly dark and grim, such that even the happy ending doesn’t completely lift the shadow the story lays on you.

          The modern LOTR movies are undeniably great, but also far from flawless. Each of them has things that really bug me, and that threaten to derail the magic (the humor is often far too broad, almost slapstick, for instance). But overall they are a pinnacle of fantasy moviemaking, this is true.

    2. Thought I’d throw another comment here, since I recently saw Legend for the first time. I’ll be reviewing it in full later, but I just wanted to say that I really liked it, even the score by Tangerine Dream! It was eery, surreal, and mostly weird in the right ways. I haven’t heard Jerry Goldsmith’s score, so maybe I’d think that one is better, but the Tangerine Dream one lent the movie a neat, unique atmosphere.

  2. My only thought when I first heard the music was, “Oh, the 80’s!”. It made me chuckle (I will admit to preferring “Labyrinth”‘s score), but it didn’t detract from the movie too much. I actually remember being more bothered by Broderick’s bad British accent in the first few scenes. His American accent didn’t blend smoothly into the Medieval setting, but it was such a relief when he dropped the British accent!

    Those petty complaints aside, I loved the movie! The ambiance, and the dream-like qualities of the romance are exquisite!

    1. I think Labyrinth‘s score is specifically designed to make females swoon. Guys, not so much. I just saw it for the first time with Urania, her sister, and Melpomene, and while I laughed and enjoyed the catchiness of the songs, they clearly were having a more serious emotional effect on the girls. The songs there are still a bit jarring, since everything comes to a halt for them, but they’ve become an integral part of the movie’s ’80s charm. They are a lot of fun, but yeah…Bowie’s Goblin King was designed with a female audience in mind. Enough said, haha.

      Ambiance, that’s a word I should have used! Yes, Ladyhawke does have a fine, romantic ambiance.

      1. Labyrinth has never made me swoon… on the contrary, I tend to shudder when Bowie is getting too much screen-time, but I do agree with Golden Bookwyrm that the 80’s score works with it, as does the score to Princess Bride, as you mentioned. Maybe it is because I was quite young when I first saw Labyrinth, but the movie fascinated and drew me in because of the world/feel it created.

        But I digress. Ladyhawke! I am glad you enjoyed it. I also agree with Golden Bookwyrm, that I preferred Broderick’s American accent to the attempted British (was that was he was going for?) accent. Your assessment that the movie could have gone deeper, and been more, is one I agree with, though even as it stands I really enjoy it.

        1. That’s comforting to know; I merely report the effects I observed! I do think Bowie makes an effective villain; he’s entertaining and menacing, and you’re never quite sure what he’ll do. I was much impressed with Labyrinth‘s visual style, its bonkers characters, and the fairly simple but well-structured trajectory of its plot arc.

          And personally, I think the best part of The Princess Bride–outside of Inigo Montoya and the duel with Westley–is “Storybook Love” playing over the end credits, and that’s saying a lot. Such a cheesy ’80s song, but so great.

          Aye, his American accent was less jarring than his fake British one. Probably because Navarre and Isabeau both used American accents. (I think all the other characters had British accents, right?)

          I wonder about a remake. There are plenty of things to fix, but a modern movie wouldn’t have the ’80s charm, and Rutger Hauer’s too old to play Navarre (on the other hand, Michelle Pfeiffer could probably still play Isabeau. Has she aged at all?). The likelihood of finding actors as charismatic and good as they is very very low. But I’d kind of like to see it tried, with the right people at the helm.

      2. Lol! I won’t argue there; “As the World Falls Down” is so obviously tailored for women that I’d laugh if I wasn’t enjoying it so much (I don’t think I’ve ever swooned at the movie, but I did produce a rather goofy smile once).

        But, beyond the music, I think Bowie’s charm stems from the fact that he’s totally creepy and covertly threatening but his charismatic nature draws you in anyways. Jubilare says it best a couple of comments down.

  3. From what I’ve seen, I am not alone in my reaction to Labyrinth, but I have also seen people swoon over it, so I know what you are talking about. I adore Sir Didymus, and yes, the art/feel of the labyrinth is wonderful, in my opinion! The film is strange and playful and fearless in its strangeness, all of which I love. I watch it, sometimes, just for visual inspiration.

    The Princess Bride is just a wonderful film, and a wonderful book!

    I don’t rightly recall, but most likely.

    Oo. I don’t know how I feel about that. Getting the right people at the helm, and the right cast-members would be imperative. The movie could as easily be broken entirely as it could be improved, and I would be biting my nails in anxiety. I can’t even think of an effective Navarre.

    1. I should probably be careful saying that Urania and Mel were “swooning” at Bowie, and let them describe how they like him. But still, I liked Bowie as a villain, and he is, after all, trying somewhat to seduce Sarah. And you’re right, the visual design is the movie’s strongest point, and its characters are also delightful.

      Aye, that’s my one hangup, that I can’t think of any effective Navarre. The only actors with enough gravitas are on the older side, now. Chris Hemsworth, maybe? He did pretty good as Thor, with the medieval-ish dialogue and seriousness, and the chivalric sincerity.

      1. Yup!

        Hmm… The only things I’ve seen him in are The Avengers and Star Trek. I have a hard time imagining him as Navarre, but he may have such a thing in his range.

  4. Oh, and yes, I think Bowie makes a very good antagonist. He is charismatic (which makes him that much more creepy!), volatile, controlling and unpredictable. All very menacing… brr.

  5. I was a huge Alan Parsons Project fan (well, actually still am) and that score was pure Parsons (I think he was the music producer for Ladyhawke). I remember seeing this film in the theater and loving it — and enjoying the “modern-ish” soundtrack. I re-watched it again not too long ago and found it pretty dated.

    I guess I’ve gotten curmudgeonly enough that the synthesizer music sounds “wrong” against the “magical” background of the movie, but I think that’s an expectations game, really. A friend of mine said she didn’t like the audiobook for one fantasy novel because the reader had an American accent — because fantasy people are supposed to speak the King’s English, correct??

    That said, other than the at-times jarring soundtrack I thought the movie held up pretty well.

    1. It’s definitely dated — I just still found it a lot of fun. +) Then again, I’m kind of old-fashioned-ish for a young-ish guy.

      Aye, it is a little odd that Americans and Brits both assume almost all historical fiction and fantasy accents as British, unless they’re particularly exotic. This would only make sense in fantasy settings that were clearly inspired by England. Really, the characters in Ladyhawke should all have French accents. But maybe that would sound too silly. I accept American accents when the production and actors are American, because then their dialogue sounds more natural, and the characters would be speaking naturally rather than affecting an accent. That’s part of why in Ladyhawke, even Broderick’s flat American accent is better than his attempt at a British one, because it’s more natural for him to speak in.

      1. In addition to fantasy films, British accents are used for villains and every European featured in American movies. Even in “Hugo,” which is set in France, most of the characters sound English and not French.

  6. I’d forgotten about this movie entirely, but I’ve really enjoyed reading your review and the ensuing discussion. I can’t contribute anything solid, since it’s probably been 20 years since I watched it, but I will say that I recall liking it, and Richard Donner is one of those versatile directors for whom the term “hack” should be a compliment, rather than an insult.

    I’ve seen Labyrinth more recently than Ladyhawke, and it didn’t click with me. The two best things about it are the production design and David Bowie. I can’t say I “swoon” for him, but he is easily one of the most charismatic performers in the world, either on stage or on screen, and the whole movie just comes alive whenever he shows up. Maybe I had to have seen it when I was younger, but when I saw it for the first time in college, I couldn’t wrap my head around the disparity between the hype and what I saw on the screen in front of me.

    1. Maybe age when you first see Labyrinth does matter, but there is a texture to the world and the non-human (for matter of argument I count Jareth as human) characters that I’ve always found imaginative and compelling. It is a relatively simple film, and by no means flawless, but it’s still a standby for me. 🙂

    2. I probably would’ve loved both Ladyhawke and Labyrinth even more if I’d first seen them while young. Neither is perfect, but I found them both to be very entertaining and interesting, with some actual substance beneath the glossy surface of the special effects.

  7. I used to have a mildly high opinion of this movie when I first saw it back in the 1980s. I see now that I was young and didn’t know any better. After a recent viewing, I never realized how truly crappy it was. Wait a minute. I’m being too unkind. I found it rather mediocre . . . especially Matthew Broderick’s performance.

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