Alexander (2004)

Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brian Blessed, Brendan Gleeson

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Colin Farrell as Alexander... with that hair...

I'll admit it, I was expecting another Troy. Much cumbersome wielding of swords accompanied by tedious shouty speeches about great deeds that live forever, with some unconvincing accents and bad hairdoes thrown in for good measure. Okay, so I was right about the dodgy hair (Alexander's permed golden wig is not good). And there is quite a bit of sword waving. And great deeds that live forever are occasionally mentioned. In less than credible accents.

But once you get your head round the fact that everyone from Macedonia is Irish (even the Americans), everyone who's Greek is English and everyone else is a Barbarian who speaks 'foreign' (for which read rolled 'r's and guttural vowels), apart from Alexander's mum, played somewhat less than convincingly by Angelina Jolie, who's, um, Russian, well, once you get your head round that, and you ignore the unnecessarily long prologue and epilogue (a creaky Sir Anthony Hopkins extolling the vices and virtues of our great hero for, like, several hours) and you've got past all the cheesy boyhood stuff at the beginning and you get to the first battle. (breathe now.) then you've got one helluva film.

Colin Farrell as Alexander... with that helmet...

However, before the first battle commences, you can't help but be sceptical. After Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields, where else can screen battles go? Peter Jackson gave us 100,000 orcs with attack trolls and armoured oliphants. What can Oliver Stone possibly do to beat that? Alexander galloping up and down in front of endless phalanxes of spearmen, whilst yelling out a stirring speech? Yawn, we've seen it all before (although the funny motorbike helmet with the feathery deely-boppers is a new one on me.).

So what does Stone do? Make it real. Fought across a vast stretch of arid, orange desert, Alexander's epoch making battle against the Persian hordes is brutal, visceral and very, very bloody. And there are attack camels too - they're pretty cool. In fact all in all, the Persians, with their exotic curly beards and inch thick eyeliner, are way cooler than the stuffy Macedonians, with their leather miniskirts and pointy sticks. But coolness doesn't win wars (as the Haradrim found out); the Persians are routed, and Alexander and army march triumphantly into Babylon.

The exotic allure of the East... Rosario Dawson as Roxana

And what a triumph it is - a triumph of CGI scenery that is. With its towering ziggurats, immense gleaming walls of aqua blue tiles and beautifully lush hanging gardens, the exotic paradise city truly does take the breath away. No wonder Alexander and his best friend and lover Hephaistion (Jared Leto) are soon seduced by the glamorous allure of the mysterious East, casting aside their sterile white togas in favour of richly coloured, embroidered gold robes and layering on the eyeliner like they're auditioning for the New York Dolls.

Throughout the film, the rational, intellectual world of the Greeks is contrasted starkly with the dangerous, corrupting sexiness of the Barbarian East. Whilst his commanders stay rigidly true to their Greek and Macedonian roots, Alexander and Hephaistion surrender themselves eagerly to the dark desires of unknown realms. Although not for our hero a soft life hanging out in the harem while giggling, dark skinned women peel him grapes - no, as far as he's concerned, if the East is cool, then he'd better conquer more of it.


And so off they trot, and soon most of the known world lies at our hero's feet. Until he reaches the unexplored reaches of India, where, like Napoleon in Russia, the weather - in this case unending monsoon downpours - soon destroys the morale of his fast flagging troops. And like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Sherwood Forest and the Americans in Vietnam, he's finally bested by guerrilla soldiers fighting dirty in the woods, in a battle that's so utterly gripping and brutally shocking it'll have you on the edge of your seat. And there are elephants.

Angelina Jolie as Alexander's mum, Val Kilmer as Alexander's dad and Colin Farrell as Alexander. Nice hair...

Is Oliver Stone making a political point? He claims not to be, but it doesn't half get you thinking. Despite the fact that Alexander is our hero, there is no jingoistic exaltation of warfare here. The battles are unflinchingly violent and cruel, their aftermaths foul and bloody. As Alexander presses ever further eastwards, dragging his increasingly reluctant troops along behind him and leaving in his wake a trail of butchered natives and cowed and beaten tribes, now resettled in newly founded 'civilised' cities (all called Alexandria), we can only marvel with disbelief then horror at his overweening arrogance. Just who the **** does he think he is?

In the end, Stone is not really that concerned with Alexander the military victor. Instead he shows us Alexander the visionary, his limitless ambition driven by a desire to escape the shadow of his overbearing father, King Philip (Val Kilmer in 'not crap' shocker), and to get as far away from his crazy murderous mother as he possibly can; Alexander the leader, part 'man of the people', part despot; and Alexander the man, his love for loyal Hephaistion at odds with his passion for his hot blooded Eastern wife Roxana (Rosario Dawson).

Jared Leto as Hephaistion. Mmmm...

Damned if he do and damned if he don't, Stone has been criticised for his handling of the Alexander/Hephaistion relationship. Far right groups have claimed the film's too gay, gay groups have claimed it's not gay enough. Personally I think Stone gets it about right - this is a film about ambition and power and love; it's not a film about sex. The one sex scene we're presented with (Alexander and his wife, of course) is pretty perfunctory - I don't think we really need to see Alexander and Hephaistion in bed to understand their relationship (even if Jared Leto is rather nice. it's that irresistible combination of stubble and eyeliner.sigh.)

But what of Colin Farrell then? Is he a great Alexander? I've never been a huge fan, but I have to admit he's pretty damn good, especially in the latter scenes, when his megalomania and absorption into the exotic and ever so slightly sleazy culture of the East are really starting to take their toll. Clad in rich glittery robes and enough jewellery to sink a battleship, blond locks flowing down his back, he's the spitting image of Crüe's Vince Neil in his fat alcoholic '90s phase, drowning his troubles in an endless stream of strong wine, Persian strippers and sex. (This is, after all, a biopic, and where would a good biopic be without at last a token decent into raddled debauchery?) It's not the most subtle performance ever, but it's a brave and heartfelt attempt to bring the mythic/historical figure to vibrant, unforgettable life.

Bold, sumptuous, sensuous and absorbing, Alexander is a million miles ahead of the pouting and posturing of Troy. It may have been slated somewhat by the critics, but don't believe a word of it. Yes, it has its flaws, but on the whole, Alexander is. great.

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