Alexander

on November 24, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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Monumentally ambitious, Oliver Stone's "Alexander" accomplishes the twin objectives of the epic biopic, capturing both the Homeric scope of an emperor who conquers 90 percent of the known world by age 25 and the nuanced motivations of a man who, like his hero Achilles (note the shades of this spring's "Troy"), chooses a path of great fame but early death over a long life with little glory. It's a portrait of a soldier never defeated in battle whose first rule of war is to do what he asks of his men; a benevolent leader less interested in the accumulation of land and gold than the spread of ideas and incorporation of new cultures; an explorer whose search for love and home takes him to the edge of the earth.

Yet, as written by Stone and portrayed by Colin Farrell, Alexander the Great is also a tormented and deeply flawed character, haunted by his mother's possible involvement in his father's murder; ruthless in the subjugation of his foes; relentless in his pursuit of his own ends, to the point that his own men mutiny. Farrell undergoes an extraordinary transformation from a smooth-faced, wide-eyed teen to a weary, ravaged warrior, due in no small part to the contributions of hair and makeup. But Farrell's achievement here cannot be understated as he channels the rage, passion and desperation of an ambivalent emperor who ruled more than two millennia ago.

Much of the time more classically filmed than one is accustomed to with Stone, "Alexander" blends sweeping aerial cinematography with gritty handheld footage during the grandiose Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander's army of 47,000 roundly defeats a Persian military of 250,000. The film's climactic battle in India, in which the Macedonians encounter elephants for the first time, is strikingly photographed, flushing the frame with red after culminating with a stunning image of Alexander confronting his enemy.

Hampered by stilted dialogue and an unnecessary narrative device featuring Anthony Hopkins that undermines Farrells textured performance, "Alexander" avoids that other bane of period epics, the uneven accent, by very specifically assigning English dialects to convey the subtle hierarchies at work in Greek society and the cultures Alexander and his army encounter. However, in his scrupulous attention to historical accuracy, Stone overemphasizes the social mores of the period, and his Alexander will be remembered less for his foreign policy than the fact that he kissed other men.

Prominent in the narrative is Alexander's childhood friend and trusted battle commander Hephaistion (Jared Leto), whom the film posits as Alexander's love interest. Unfortunately, Alexander's romantic relationships with men--there's also an alluring Persian concubine who draws his bath--rely solely on innuendo. There's no mistaking the implied intimacy in their exchanges, although if read on the page one could make the argument that the men were just good friends. But if Alexander kisses Hephaistion--and one can't recall with certainty whether he even does--that's the extent of the portrayal of any physicality between the men.

On the one hand this choice accurately reflects the times when, as Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) instructs a young Alexander, sharing between men--both intellectually and physically--was considered pure and sexuality wasn't defined as hetereo of homo or bi. There's no judgment among bystanders with regard to Alexander's sexual proclivities. On the other, the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion feels truncated, and because of this void the implication of their romance, like a metaphor involving an ever-present eagle soaring overhead, is emphasized with a heavy hand throughout the film. The studio denies that the current political climate played a role in shaping the film's sexual content, but it certainly feels like someone is trying to have it both ways. Meanwhile, there's profligate sex between Alexander and his first wife Roxane, whom he marries to bear him an heir, in which Rosario Dawson is nude during a scene that plays like a soft-core rape fantasy. Starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson and Jared Leto. Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis. Produced by Thomas Schuhly, Jon Kilik, Iain Smith and Moritz Borman. A Warner Bros. release. Period epic. Rated R for sexuality/nudity. Running time: 175 min

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