Friday 22 December 2023

One for all: "The Three Musketeers: Part II - Milady"

This second and notionally concluding instalment of an all-star French diptych confirms one of the strengths that became apparent in the course of April's
Part I - D'Artagnan: how committed director Martin Bourboulon and writers Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière are to Dumas's novel as a text, rather than (as per some of the hippier, glitzier adaptations) merely a moodboard for carousing, romancing and swashbuckling derring-do. The Three Musketeers: Part II - Milady leans heavily into the court conspiracy angle opened up by its predecessor, paying full and proper attention to every last scheming tunic and cassock, and setting us to wonder who among this populous supporting cast is most guilty of plotting to overthrow Louis Garrel's floppy Louis XIII. The Musketeers, at once action men and thrusting detectives, are further fleshed out en route: Vincent Cassel's craggy Athos even more lovelorn and haunted by the follies of man than he was first time around, the brotherly Aramis and Porthos (Romain Duris and Pio Marmaï) forced to work as a pair as the narrative focus shifts elsewhere, François Civil's boyish D'Artagnan remaining on the right side of noble even as a dripping wet Eva Green disrobes before him to reveal a most un-17th century bustier. It feels instinctively right that this closer should bear the name of her shapeshifting character, given that Green once again operates at a pitch of intensity roughly 150 times greater than anybody else on screen.

Implicit in the handling is a faith in the filmic properties of the text - and an insistence it doesn't require much in the way of juicing or sexing up. Purists may cavil at the new, semi-open ending, presumably leaving a door ajar for a third adventure or spin-off sidequest if box office is good. (Dumas couldn't leave these characters alone, either.) Mostly, though, this one-two has been a welcome throwback to an era when our event movies ran no longer than two hours a pop, and still managed to deliver twists, turns, thrills and spills, mistaken identities, duels and coded letters, as well as quality time in striking heritage sites (Milady gives especially strong fort) and more grizzled and memorable character actors than there are pixels to behold. Despite the relocation here from Paris to a La Rochelle fogged up by cannon fire, it's a bit beigey-brown to look at. Bourboulon's going for muddy, bloody and autumnal; there are more night shoots this time, as bestubbled and besmirched men have at it and darkness falls on la France entière. But the smoke clears every now and again for a smartly carved out interaction care of or in the vein of Dumas himself: Porthos and Aramis combining to persuade an unmarried mother-to-be that her feckless seducer perished in a heroic cause; a confrontation between Athos and Milady wherein Cassel and Green act in parallel to the terrific Vikram-Aishwarya Rai Bachchan business in this year's Tamil hit Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2 (stories know no borders); and a final murderous betrayal written out of jollier adaptations for being too tragic. Very much old-school, resolutely (or - because French - militantly) trad, a touch viande-et-patates, these films have nevertheless grasped the pleasures of good storytelling, and the place good storytelling might have in the 21st century multiplex. Next up: rival redos of The Count of Monte Cristo, one overseen by Bille August (with Sam Claflin in the lead) for TV, one directed by Delaporte and de La Patellière (and starring Pierre Niney) for the big screen.

The Three Musketeers: Part II - Milady is now playing in selected cinemas.

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