Two things about Ladyhawke without getting to the script or some of the acting. First, Andrew Powell’s music. It’s godawful; it’s stunning to see a director as competent as Richard Donner put something so godawful in a film. Intentionally put it in a film. It’s silly. It sounds like a disco cover of the “Dallas” theme song at its best and it tends to get much, much worse from that low peak.
Second, Vittorio Storaro’s photography. Not all of it, but the day for night stuff is terrible. Again, it seems like Donner and Storaro should know better, especially since there’s actual fine nighttime photography in other parts. Just not when the film needs it to visually make sense.
Now for the script. The film’s about Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer. They were carefree young lovers in Northern Italy after the Crusades, even though lots of people have French names, which gets confusing. I don’t think the location really matters. The evil bishop of this castle and settlement–John Wood in a really lame performance–curses them because he’s a Catholic bishop in the Middle Ages so he’s perving after Pfeiffer. By day, she lives as hawk. By night, he lives as a wolf. Both animals mate for life, something it seems unlikely anyone would know about in the Middle Ages, but the occasionally lamer than it needs to be script feels the need to point out.
But, Hauer’s not the lead and neither is Pfeiffer. Instead, it’s Matthew Broderick. He plays a young thief who escapes Wood’s prison and finds himself basically squiring for Hauer’s knight. He meets Pfeiffer and soon learns their tragic fate. The script doesn’t give anyone enough to do–except Wood and he’s got too much to do given his performance–but there’s a lot of trying. Broderick tries, Hauer tries, Pfeiffer tries. Pfeiffer’s the most successful, not because the writing is better for her, but because the plotting isn’t as bad for her scenes. Just the day for night photography. Hauer has it the worst. Any time he starts to show personality, it’s nightfall and he disappears for a bit.
The music and photography mess up quite a bit of what otherwise seems like a good production. There’s some wonky editing from Stuart Baird, like Donner didn’t get enough coverage, which isn’t a surprise, but it’s mostly fine. It’s not great, but it’s fine.
Leo McKern is all right as the disgraced priest who has the plan to reunite the lovers. Ken Hutchison’s kind of okay as Wood’s henchman. Better than Wood anyway, even if his part’s lame.
Even without the terrible music and the problematic photography, Ladyhawke would still have that script. All it’s got going for it is likability, which Broderick, Hauer and Pfeiffer all have; Donner just doesn’t utilize it. Instead, he relies on the script, the music, the photography and Ladyhawke’s… well, it’s too lukewarm to be a disaster. It should be a disappointment, but there’s not enough wasted potential to be one.
Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Edward Khmara, Michael Thomas and Tom Mankiewicz, based on a story by Khmara; director of photography, Vittorio Storaro; edited by Stuart Baird; music by Andrew Powell; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; produced by Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Matthew Broderick (Gaston), Rutger Hauer (Navarre), Michelle Pfeiffer (Isabeau), Leo McKern (Imperius), Ken Hutchison (Marquet), Alfred Molina (Cezar) and John Wood (The Bishop).