Watched Oliver Stone’s much-maligned historical epic about Alexander the Great, the famous Macedonian king who conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks by the age of thirty. It’s a messy film with a miscast lead, but it honestly wasn’t as bad as its reputation (and 16% Rotten Tomatoes rating) would have me think. I haven’t seen the original theatrical release so I can’t tell if this version is an improvement; apparently there are four different versions floating around with the last Ultimate Cut adding 40 extra minutes… that would have made for a very long night in front of TV.
Just to get it out of the way, yes Colin Farrell is not convincing as either Alexander the Great, or a natural blonde for that matter, unless ancient Greeks counted peroxide as one of their contributions to the world. He’s a charismatic actor whose performances I’ve enjoyed elsewhere, but he’s just too ordinary, too one-of-the-guys to portray a truly extraordinary figure. Apparently there was once a competing Alexander biopic in the works with Leonardo di Caprio starring and Baz Luhrmann directing, and while I don’t necessarily think that di Caprio would have been a good Alexander he’d have nailed that larger-than-life, mad-eyed quality at least. Another hindrance is the fact that the film has no real psychological grip on its elusive subject. Stone wants to both demystify Alexander and glorify him, and instead of being multi-faceted and complex Alexander simply feels all over the place. To Farrell’s credit though, as much as he’s miscast he’s never boring to watch and there’s a real energy to his performance.
The film is narrated by Anthony Hopkins, who plays the elderly Ptolemy, once a trusted general of Alexander and now ruling over Egypt from Alexandria. Fun fact I didn’t know, this was one of the many Alexandrias founded during Alexander’s grand trek across Asia. Like many biopics, Alexander attempts to cram in the entire story from childhood to death, and in fact starts off with the scene of Alexander’s death that feels like a nod to Citizen Kane. Then it’s over to Alexander as a young boy, the son of king Phillip II (Val Kilmer hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow) and his wife Olympias (Angelina Jolie), who is, er, eccentric to say the least, keeping snakes in her quarters and telling Alexander that his real father is god Zeus. Jolie, despite a silly “exotic” accent, is a delight playing a totally over-the-top bonkers character, so I can overlook the fact that she doesn’t look much older than Farrell’s grown Alexander – it’s little wonder the poor guy has mommy issues, to put it mildly. After a while, the film shifts quite abruptly to Alexander’s decisive battle at Gaugamela where he thrashed the forces of the Persian king Darius, a strange fast-forward which I only realised later was an excuse to tell the rest of Alexander’s family drama in recurring flashbacks rather than a chronological order. I’ve no idea what purpose it served, other than to space out Jolie’s scenes throughout the movie.
Alexander’s bisexuality is addressed in the sort of coy way mainstream Hollywood allows: Alexander exchanges embraces and meaningful looks with his closest friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto), and is shown hopping into bed with a pretty Persian guy, but the full-on sex scene is reserved for his Persian wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson). As a result, both relationships feel sidelined. There’s a believable chemistry and tenderness between Alexander and Hephaistion, but the movie won’t go any further into their bond and Hephaistion remains a peripheral figure without much personality. Roxane is introduced as a spirited firecracker of a woman, but after one night of unbridled passion she is relegated to her tent as a disappointing barren wife.
The big battles of the film are both spectacular and frustrating – much of the action is too chaotic, I could never tell what the heck was going on, and the random subtitles during the Gaugamela battle were no help whatsoever. But the fighting scenes have scope, oomph and energy, there’s gorgeous armour, camels, horses, and even battle elephants later on – with one slow-motion horse vs elephant shot which is both awesome and ridiculous. The film ultimately doesn’t manage the balance between Alexander’s military and political career and his personal life, despite the almost 3-hour running time: both halves of the man are sketchy and incomplete. Yet Alexander has grandeur and sense of ambition that’s rare these days, and if it’s a failure it’s a fascinating stab at greatness.