Monday, 1 January 2018

Movie review: Cleopatra (1963)

A mammoth historical epic, Cleopatra is a mind-numbing and emotionally frigid four hours filled with grand sets, numerous colourful costumes and endless but hollow spectacle.

Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) chases his defeated rival Pompey to Egypt, where he quickly gets embroiled in the raging civil war over control of the throne between the immature Ptolemy and his conniving but alluring sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). Keen to re-establish stability to ensure the continued flow of natural resources from Egypt, Caesar sides with Cleopatra. She has grander plans, and proceeds to seduce Caesar and bear his child with ambitions for them to jointly rule the world.

Cleopatra makes the grandest of entrances on a state visit to Rome, during which she catches the eye of Caesar loyalist Mark Anthony (Richard Burton). But Caesar's ascension to absolute power is rudely interrupted on the Ides of March, forcing Cleopatra to retreat to Egypt. Rome is plunged into a civil war from which Mark Anthony and Caesar's appointed successor Octavian (Roddy McDowall) emerge victorious. Mark Anthony arranges a meeting with Cleopatra to re-establish ties, triggering a steamy affair as again she plots to expand her powers through the art seduction.

One of the most troubled and expensive productions in Hollywood's colourful history, Cleopatra almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. No shooting script, a change in filming location from England to Italy, a change in director with Joseph L. Mankiewicz taking over from Rouben Mamoulian, and extensive delays caused by Elizabeth Taylor falling severely ill resulted in an out-of-control fiasco.

But all the public cared about were reports of a scandalous on-set affair between Taylor and Richard Burton, both married to others at the time. Cleopatra became a must-see event for the notoriety of its stars, and despite ending the year as the box office champion, it still lost enormous amounts of money due to the massive (at the time) $33 million production cost.

After a post-production process during which he was fired and then re-hired (the script only existed in his head), Mankiewicz delivered a 6 hour cut and pleaded for the release of two separate three-hour films: Caesar And Cleopatra to be followed by Anthony And Cleopatra. Aware of public desire to see Taylor and Burton together immediately, the studio insisted that Mankiewicz deliver one four-hour film.

The result is a bloated mess. Extraordinarily talkative and exhaustively long, the film lumbers forth sometimes incoherently at a plodding pace. Characters come and go sometimes at random, important events appear to be skipped entirely or barely explained, characters are vacuous, and the few action scenes consist of colossal build-ups followed by limp and clumsy execution.

What survives are the lavish sets that serve as backdrops to all the talking, and the parlour game of Taylor changing outfits (and especially wigs and hairdos) every few minutes. For followers of fashion, hairstyles and cleavage there is always something to see, and on a few occasions the film gets distracted with circus-like interludes, dancers, performers, and general merriment taking over the screen and killing off whatever narrative momentum may have been building.

With creaky and overwrought lines of dialogue, Cleopatra's seductive powers and the passion between her and two powerful men never make it onto the screen. The loosening of censorship restrictions allowed Mankiewicz to ensure Taylor and her maidens are always alluring, but then the talking kicks in and any sense of enticement and adoration is lost in the suffocating verbiage.

With the exception of Rex Harrison, the performances are best described as vacant. The actors don't appear invested in what just happened previously and what will happen next (either because they did not know or it was all lost in the editing) and so every scene is a tedious stand-alone melodramatic piece, emotionally detached from every other scene.

Harrison is a notable cut-above, inserting an edge of confidence and sardonic humour in his performance as Caesar, and the film's second half without him is much the poorer. Roddy McDowall as Octavian is the only other standout performer, perhaps over-the-top but suitable as an impressively calculative leader.

Cleopatra's entrance into Rome is an admittedly impressive piece of cinematic extravagance. But like the rest of the film, it's a display of indulgent pageantry without soul.

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