Saturday 11 February 2012

From the archive: "The Princess Bride"

Not so very long ago, in a time before Shrek but just after Spinal Tap, the grand viziers of La-la-land decreed their subjects should be gathered together to hear a fairytale, by one of its wittiest court jesters, about a beautiful princess, her love for a humble farmboy, and the mysterious masked man who comes to her rescue after she's married to a tyrannical king and carried away by mercenaries. There would be swordplay, and giants, and "kissing parts", and a happy ending, and everyone who heard it thought it the most wonderful story they'd ever been told; even better, in fact, than the one about the Goblin King, or the one about dark crystals, or the one that the troubadour from the neighboring republic of Kajagoogoo had claimed was never-ending. And thus did enchantment set in, and all was well in the kingdom, for at least another 94 minutes.

William Goldman's novel The Princess Bride was already wise to the ways youngsters were having their attention snatched away from them: appropriately, the film's first shot is of a very 1980s computer baseball game. Yet the whole project would counter by coming up with renewed ways of winning that attention back, most notably by appearing at once a good deal smarter than the story being told. The great joy of Rob Reiner's film is that it's never smarmy; of course, it helps that the people doing the interrupting on screen are Peter Falk, pretty much ideal casting as the narrating grandfather, and a pre-Wonder Years Fred Savage, whose puppy-fat cheeks were just asking to be pulled.

The trick is that it genuinely seems to believe in the romance, virtue and magic it annotates; it deconstructs to show just how central these elements are to the art and craft of truly satisfying storytelling, and denies us an easy outlet for our cynicism with every new cut to Savage's increasingly beguiled face. Billy Crystal's latex-coated cameo as Miracle Max looks less and less funny as the years go by, but Cary Elwes (as the farmboy) and Robin Wright (as the Princess) were never to top this; if you had any sense, you'd also take Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya over the Patinkin of Yentl, and his double-act with Andre the Giant is just about perfect.

(September 2007)

The Princess Bride screens on five this afternoon at 5.30pm.

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