Friday 2 August 2013

Movie Review: Alexander (2004)

Note: this is a review of Oliver Stone's Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, released on DVD in 2007, the 214 minute (and longest) version of the film. In addition to the 2004 theatrical release, there is also a Director's Cut (2005) and an Ultimate Cut (2013).

A historical epic, Alexander is a talky but often effective chronicle of the 4th century BC adventures of the young Macedonian, as he conquers most of the known world. More a story of a grand personal quest than a war movie, Alexander almost succeeds in capturing the full scope of a remarkable man.

The film is constructed as a non-linear series of key events from Alexander's life, narrated by the elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), one of the generals who fought alongside Alexander (Colin Farrell). There are frequent jumps in time, as Alexander's conquests are mixed with pivotal childhood memories.

The movie starts with the massive Battle of Gaugamela, where thanks to bold tactics Alexander's outnumbered forces defeat Persian Emperor Darius III, establishing Alexander's rule over Babylon and most of western Asia. In flashback, his darkly conniving mother Queen Olympias (Angelina Jolie) is introduced. She is a snake lover with sorceress-like characteristics, and she strongly believes that Alexander is destined for greatness because he is the son of Zeus. In fact, Alexander's father is King Philip II (Val Kilmer), who unified the Greeks and laid the groundwork for Alexander's glory before being assassinated.

Alexander has a troubled relationship with both his parents, finding his mother nakedly ambitious and his father a coarse, unsophisticated ruler. Heavily influenced by his teacher Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), the adult Alexander is most comfortable leading his men as they defeat enemies in ever more distant lands, expanding the limits of Greek dominion. In addition to Ptolemy (Elliot Cowan), his generals, friends and followers include his lover Hephaestion (Jared Leto), as well as Cassander (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Cleitus (Gary Stretch).

In northern Asia, Alexander causes fury by marrying Roxana (Rosario Dawson), a local commoner, as in his mind he attempts to unify west and east and prove that he treats everyone justly. Alexander appears to be on a quest to find the limits of the earth, but after many victories and years away from home, his exhausted generals and loyal followers start to question his leadership, as he leads them on an ill-fated incursion into India.

For Oliver Stone, Alexander has developed into an obsession and a labour of love: he has been editing and re-editing the movie into various versions for the best part of a decade. The Final Cut edition takes a throw-everything-in approach, resulting in the most complete, but also the most energy-sapping, version of the story. Considering that there are only two battle scenes in the three and half hours of running length, most of the movie is occupied by conversations about destiny, ambition, loyalty, love, death, betrayal and power. It's a lot of talk, and while the emphasis on character is welcome, it's all starts to become a bit too earnest and strained.

The two battle scenes are a mix of the spectacular, the gory and the confused. Using plenty of ground-level camera shots, Stone does his best to explain battle tactics by labelling various shots with the specific Macedonian flanks, but with everyone helmeted and armoured, it remains difficult to tell apart all the men on galloping horses. The scenes become a collision of carnage, flying limbs, severed heads and gored bodies littering the terrain in quick edits. Disorienting, yes, but also effective in conveying the rivers of blood-letting. And the battle in India gets extra marks for introducing thundering elephants into the fields of butchery.

Alexander is portrayed as openly bi-sexual, carrying on relationships with male lovers, particularly Hephaestion but also his servant, as well as taking Roxana as a wife. Stone injects more emotion and deeper levels of connection between Alexander and Hephaestion, lovers as friends and trusted confidants, while Roxana remains mostly a cold outsider, a woman chosen by Alexander for the primary purpose of producing an heir, and she never evolves much beyond that function.

At the centre of the epic is Colin Farrell, who never seems entirely comfortable with the weight of history on his shoulders, but ironically, his discomfort may be entirely consistent with the subject matter of a young ruler on a rather aimless quest to the ends of the earth. Through Farrell's uncertainty Alexander's ultimate purpose is appropriately questioned: what exactly is achieved through a life of military victory resulting in permanent exile for the victorious troops? Alexander is restless, perhaps always fighting the shadows of his parents, wanting to reclaim the glory of the Greeks but doing so in places so remote that his army becomes an isolated camp, his men unable to enjoy the status of conquerors. What is achieved by ruling the world far from the comforts of home, culture and family?

Angelina Jolie hisses darkly, a woman who hates her husband and adores her son but only as a vehicle towards her own personal glory. Val Kilmer goes over the top and stays there, creating in Philip II an almost Asterix-type ruler, one-eyed, boisterously larger than life, often drunk, and always loud. Jolie and Kilmer threaten to become unintentional comic relief, but do serve the purpose of prompting Alexander to carve his own life away from them both. Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Plummer have relatively small roles as idealized versions of wise old Greek men, dressed in white and eloquently dropping pearls of spoken wisdom.

Much like its subject, Alexander suffers from touches of over-ambition and obsession with an vaguely-defined journey. But the film is also a cerebral and frequently engrossing exploration of an exceptional young conqueror.

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