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Film ● Review: Ladyhawke

Title: Ladyhawke

Director(s): Richard Donner

Screenwriter(s): Edward Khmara, Michael Thomas & Tom Mankiewicz

Studio: Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox & Lauren Shuler Production

Released: 1985

Runtime: 2h 1m

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leo McKern


● Set in medieval Italy, Phillipe Gaston (Broderick) escapes prison just before he is to be executed. He is a young thief, conveniently presented as mostly harmless whilst the Bishop of Aquila is overtly evil. As the bishop’s men pursue Phillipe, he runs into Etienne Navarre (Hauer), a former captain under the bishop. Soon, Phillipe finds out that Navarre is cursed to transform into a wolf at night whilst his lover Isabeau of Anjou (Pfeiffer) is a hawk by day and human by night.

● The premise is simple and has the potential to make a great fantasy-adventure with romantic undertones: Navarre wants to reverse the curse and reunite with Isabeau in human form.

● However, a harmless thief and an evil bishop is cringe, initially having that “Church is in charge and therefore bad” message. To be fair, the evil bishop is not supposed to be the norm but it’s quite a way into the film before that point is implicitly and then explicitly made.

● Setting the above aside, Phillipe is the usual young and reluctant hero who is the viewpoint character. Even if one knows the premise, it is not entirely clear who is who exactly in the opening minutes, which is good as the audience is drawn into the mystery along with Phillipe.

● The plot, however, is too simple. Phillipe has to help Navarre in his quest. There are obstacles but not enough for a two-hour film so the pacing seems pedestrian at times.

● To put it differently, for a fantasy-adventure, it lacks adventure. In terms of pacing, it is not a bad idea that the curse is already in play before the film starts, the audience need not see Navarre and Isabeau get together. However, too much of the background is simply “told” rather than “shown”. If the villains and Isabeau (whilst in human form) are more active dealing with more obstacles, then their present actions (conflict) can be a way to reveal the nature and history of the conflict. This will also add more to the plot and dramatic action. There are other relatively minor plot issues but enough has been revealed.

● The how and why Navarre and Isabeau are under the curse are revealed later by the old priest Imperius who acts as Fr Exposition.

● The theme of redemption is apparent in the film with the main characters very different from each other. This is obviously deliberate for juxtaposition.

  • Navarre wants to defeat the evil bishop and lift the curse. He sees his current situation as a form of dishonor to himself and his family name. He is determined, he sees his cause as just and, in a way, sees whatever he can do as divine permission. He is not necessarily wrong, but he simply takes a pragmatic approach.

  • Imperius is the half-drunken priest who wants to help Navarre and Isabeau. Leo McKern does a wonderful job portraying the tormented priest who doesn’t quite know how to go about it. The writing is a little cheap in that Imperius receives a vision to help solve the problem. Divine providence is presumably the theme here but there are better ways to go about it.

  • Phillipe is superficially repentant of his ways, always bargaining with God to get him out of trouble but only half-heartedly makes an effort to fulfill his end of the bargain. Although initially a little annoying, Broderick does well as the comic; his attempts at bargaining are amusing and relatable.

Fr Imperius (Leo McKern) and Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick)
Fr Imperius (Leo McKern) and Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick)

● The characters are also obviously linked to animals. Navarre is literally a wolf on the hunt, Isabeau is the perceptive hawk and Phillipe is known as “Mouse”. It is a shame these themes and imagery are not taken further with all the characters, particularly Isabeau. Pfeiffer has a screen presence and it is a lost opportunity that her character is not more active when in human form.

● Even for a film made in 1985, the use of synths in the score is too pretentiously modern and therefore cheesy and jarring. When it takes a more traditional approach, it is fine and is fitting to the genre.

● Despite the above, it is shot and edited well. Visually, as expected, there are many wide shots of landscapes since it was filmed in Italy with real castles and real animals. Today, this would be mostly CG and would be noticeably artificial even if it looks good.

● Overall, it is not a bad film but it lacks adventure. The premise, performances and visuals make it memorable which is why some may consider this as something like a modern classic worth at least one viewing despite its plotting and pacing issues.


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