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Macedonian political activists are raging against Alexander, claiming that it misrepresents history on the troubled relationship between Greece and Macedonia. But they sagely can save their energies for a more significant battle, for nobody could possible take this overblown mess of a movie seriously–except, one assumes, for Oliver Stone (Any Given Sunday, Natural Born Killers) who takes credit as a writer as well as director.
In the fourth century, B.C., Alexander the Great of Macedon succeeded his father as leader of the confederated Greek states and then proceeded to expand his empire by conquering Persia, Syria, Egypt, Babylon, and other kingdoms, reaching his limits only in India, when his exhausted troops rebelled. Running some three hours, the film tells the story of Alexander, from his childhood, through his accession to his father’s position, his military campaigns, his famously bisexual love life, to his death at the age of thirty-three. The movie seems a whole lot longer than the brief life it follows.
Bookending the film, and with voiceover narration throughout, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) dictates the history to a scribe from his retirement in Alexandria, the city in Egypt founded by the hero. The narration skims speedily over the names of the places Alexander traversed, many unfamiliar to today’s audiences. Maps are shown, but so briefly that they do little to help clarify the exotic geography. And Hopkins rarely injects any genuine emotion or sense of immediacy into his performance; it’s as if he sensed he was trapped in a disaster and was looking for the quickest way out.
The story itself unfolds in flashbacks (and time jumps, too, for some unfathomable reason), alternating between scenes of flat dialogue, generally declaimed rather than merely spoken, and spectacle. There are two major battles, both of which give the impression of having been seen in some earlier film. The battle scenes use lots of closeups of the violence, edited so that the camera never lingers, quickly jumping from one shot to the next, lending a sense of the chaos of hand-to-hand combat. There are occasional aerial views, intended to give a sense of the military strategies, an approach that was far more successful in the otherwise dismal Civil War film, Gods and Generals. Another scene of computer generated images of a rain of arrows is straight out of Hero. After each conquest, there is a victory banquet, with exotic dancers of various dusky shades of skin. All that’s missing is Victor Mature.
Colin Farrell (The Recruit, A Home at the End of the World), in his first foray into the epic-history genre, is trapped in the inanities of the cliche-ridden dialogue. Between his bullying father (Val Kilmer, Spartan)) and his overbearing, scheming mother (Angelina Jolie), it’s no wonder that Alexander would end up a character without a center. Stone provides not the slightest sense of what formed this great leader and motivated him to his extraordinary achievements, so Farrell seems a bit lost throughout. He has accent problems, too, mostly using the homogenized American sound, but frequently lapsing into his native Irish brogue. Hopkins, of course, uses his cultivated world-English enunciation. Jolie (Girl Interrupted), on the other hand, adopts an East European accent–Hungarian perhaps–and vamps her way through the role of Olympias like a Greek version of Theda Bara, eyes heavily kohled and often squinted into slits, a sure sign of intended cunning. Jolie gives the impression of being aware that she was participating in a bomb, so why not camp it up?
In addition to the cliched lines ("Beware of men who think too much!" "I’ll be with you always, till the end." "I’m nothing without you!"), there is a cliched score, from reverberant Wagnerian battle music, to tinkling tunes for the exotic dancers, to multiple grand climaxes complete with swelling strings and heavenly choirs. It’s as if Stone deliberately were creating a parody of all the cornball biblical/historical spectacles in the history of the movies and it’s unsurprising that the audience frequently laughed at moments intended to be serious.