Rutger Hauer and Matthew Broderick riding a horse in Ladyhawke. image credit: Warner Bros

Movie Review: LADYHAWKE (1985) *****

Everyone wanted to possess Isabeau d’Angou, daughter of the Comte. Her unearthly beauty captured the hearts of everyone who saw her, whether man or priest, and the Bishop of Aquila became obsessed with her. Yet the one man Isabeau wanted herself was Etienne Navarre, the handsome captain of the guard in Aquila. Isabeau and Etienne could have known such happiness if not for the bitter rage of the Bishop, who called upon the power of the Devil himself to curse the lovers: if the Bishop could not possess this woman, then nobody could, and damned be his immortal soul.

Once the curse befell them, Isabeau became a hawk by day, while Etienne became a ferocious black wolf by night. The two could always be together. But never as humans. Never at the same time. Navarre was truly forced to possess Isabeau as a man possesses a hawk, carrying her on his gloved arm with her face blindfolded and her legs in jesses. It’s easy to imagine they began their journey together with hope of finding salvation, but hope waned as it became obvious the Bishop of Aquila was untouchable.

And then came Mouse — Phillippe Gaston — a young thief who distinguishes himself as the only criminal to ever escape the dungeons of Aquila.

And also came some incredibly rad synth music.

And a convenient total solar eclipse.

The 1980s were a great time for fantasy movies. I could spend a long time listing them, but I’ll stick to my personal favorites: Legend, starring Tom “Babylegs” Cruise, and Labyrinth, starring David Bowie’s package. We also got The Princess Bride (flawless), The Neverending Story (traumatic), The Last Unicorn (divine), and so many more.

Amid its stylized brethren, LADYHAWKE stands out as a fairly grounded medieval fantasy story. You don’t get colorful puppets. There’s no amazing soliloquies from Tim Curry about unicorns. Instead of sets, they filmed in a couple of old castles and a lot of sweeping fields. The costumes, while anachronistic, are kept simple, focusing the visuals entirely on the performances of actors who aren’t exactly chewing scenery.

In fact, if the soundtrack weren’t completely out of place, I think Ladyhawke would be broadly better regarded. I love the synth score, personally. But you can’t tell me it wouldn’t age better for the general public if they’d stuck to something classically orchestral.

The real highlight of Ladyhawke, for me, is how deeply romantic it is. Watching Navarre clutch Isabeau’s dress as night falls, savoring the scent of a woman he hasn’t seen in two years, is just as heartbreaking as his anguish when he watches the hawk struck by an arrow. He must always put Isabeau’s needs before his own, even if that means surrendering his wounded lover to another man so that he can carry her to be healed.

Of course, ACAB means Navarre. He’s a former guard (let’s say medieval cops), and in a previous life, he would have been one of the hairy dudes hunting down poor little Mouse. His family history involves the Crusades. Yikes. But Navarre got his butt kicked by the Church, so he’s semi-reformed.

This reformation is shown with a stark palette: Navarre dresses in voluminous black capes while wielding his crucifix-like sword on the back of a black horse (named Goliath!). Meanwhile, agents of the Church are dressed largely in white, riding white horses. The Bishop of Aquila is pictured in lavish white gowns, entertained by sultry young women, while lamenting the poor commoners can’t be taxed when they have nothing. When Navarre arrives at the climax to fight against the Church, he has become the Hand of God, and it’s a stark contrast to the villains he fights.

There is no cooler aesthetic than Navarre with his huge-ass crossbow and sword mounted on his muscular destrier, hawk clutching his glove. None. I mean, this is the goddamn Bladerunner, and he’s a freakin knight. It’s so cool I’m in pain.

Isabeau looks pretty great in Navarre’s cloak, though. She’s dressed more neutrally in grays. Her hair is cut short and appropriately feathered, giving her the look of a noble daughter on the lam. I’ve spent my entire life thinking Michelle Pfeiffer is the most beautiful woman on the planet, and her performance as Isabeau is the main reason why.

Philippe “The Twink” Gaston is adorably portrayed by Matthew Broderick at peak fame. It’s sorta like having an especially mousy Ferris Bueller running around medieval France, except he totally lacks the raw charisma…or the brain cells.

Mouse is actually kind of the main character, serving multiple narrative functions. His humble origin as a scrappy little thief who knows nothing about the curse makes him a good viewer avatar. But his main relationship is with God, meaning he also offers stark contrast to the Bishop of Aquila, just not with colors. (Appropriately, Mouse wears brown.) Mouse is way too foolish to survive everything he survives.

But he is devoted to God, and God clearly likes the kid. God’s probably the one who tosses Mouse in front of Navarre. It’s Mouse who most earnestly seeks God’s approval — not the Bishop who sold his soul, and not even the priest Imperius, who’s constantly drunk and lazing around. And so it’s Mouse who is most truly blessed.

It’s so mythic, having the good-hearted lil thief be the holy one who needs to light a path for Navarre and Isabeau’s salvation. He bears Navarre’s sword until it’s time to skewer the Bishop of Aquila in the most majestic of fashions. And by lying his butt off to Navarre and Isabeau separately, he keeps their spirits high enough to fight through the end of the curse.

I really couldn’t offer any genuine criticism for this movie. Is it a little too grounded? Maybe a little slow? Maybe some of the characters’ actions are a wee bit nonsensical at times? I have no idea. I’ve watched this movie a couple times a year for my entire life, no joke, and I think I’ve spent my entire life trying to write something as grandly mythic and shatteringly romantic as this.

Ladyhawke was made by a skilled filmmaker whose effects never get real special, which is smart, given the budgetary and technological limitations of the time. The simple framing, grading, and lighting makes it feel vividly real, as anachronistic as the choices are. It’s not nearly as much of a kids’ movie (or even a family movie) as its contemporaries in 80s fantasy films.

If you haven’t revisited this one in a while, I urge you to go back. I think it must not be very popular because I haven’t seen a remastered version. The copy I got off Amazon is janky. Let’s not let Ladyhawke fade into memory, though. This one is worth keeping around.

(image credit: Warner Bros.)

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