Alexander (United States/United Kingdom/Germany/Netherlands, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

To sum up Alexander in three words, I would choose the following: three-hour miscalculation. Although some aspects of Oliver Stone's sword-and-sandals epic are worthy of mention (and even praise), they are dwarfed by the missteps and examples of bad judgment. Instead of delivering a mainstream tale of battle and glory along the lines of Gladiator, Stone decided to re-imagine the great Alexander as a Hamlet-like figure. Rather than developing the title character as a larger-than-life individual whose flaws give him a more rounded personality, Stone turns Alexander into a character who is defined by those flaws. He is weak, indecisive, plagued by self-doubt, and obsessed. It's not credible that a man of this nature could conquer 90% of the known world by the age of 32, and therein lies Alexander's conundrum. By de-mythologizing Alexander, Stone has turned him into an unbelievable individual. We accept great deeds from great people, not from sniveling whiners.

Even though Alexander runs three hours, it can depict only highlights of the character's life. A full chronology of the king's exploits would demand a mini-series of at least three or four times that length. What's strange about Alexander is the incidents that Stone chooses to highlight. A key episode - the death of Alexander's father - is skipped, only to be shown later via an ill-placed flashback. The battles that comprise much of Alexander's adult life are largely ignored. Two are shown (the defining conflict of Gaugamela, in which the Greeks overcome a significantly superior Persian force, and a skirmish in the forests of India), but many are mentioned only in passing by the narrator. Instead, the film concentrates on more mundane elements: Alexander's stormy relationships with his mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie), father, Philip (Val Kilmer), and wife, Roxane (Rosario Dawson); his deep friendship with his inseparable companion, Hephaestion (Jared Leto); and his attempts to balance his obsessive need to "go further" with the growing desire of his commanders to return home. The more land Alexander conquers, the more restless his forces become.

Since Alexander doesn't have a villain, Stone allows the character's inner demons to fill the part. An alternative - placing Darius (Raz Degan), the king of Persia - into that role, is rejected. This lends an anticlimactic quality to the battle of Gaugamela, and the subsequent "hunt" for Darius (who escapes). The Hollywood formula would have Alexander killing him in single combat; Stone has other ideas.

It's unfair to place the failure of the central character exclusively on Colin Farrell. Farrell is not the best choice for the part - his roguish, rough-and-tumble approach isn't well-suited to playing a heroic type, and his version of the Greek king lacks both presence and charisma. But the script doesn't demand those qualities. Stone wants someone who is closer to Hamlet than Achilles, and one could argue that Farrell fits those parameters. But this interpretation of Alexander is not going to work for a lot of viewers (myself included), and, when a movie's main character fails to connect with the audience, there's a problem.

Stone arrives at an interesting way to "hide" Farrell's Irish accent. Instead of requiring the actor to disguise it, the director forces every other performer essaying a Greek or Macedonian role to have an Irish brogue. This becomes distracting. Then there's Angelina Jolie, whose Russian (?) sounds cartoonish at times. I don't know how well legitimate Greek accents would have come across, but it's hard to imagine them being as off-putting.

Alexander is ripe with homoerotic images and incestuous overtones. Although no graphic male-male sex is depicted, there's plenty of innuendo, and those who are uncomfortable with homosexuality will be offended by parts of Alexander. This may be the most expensive motion picture to-date in which the bisexuality of the main character is so openly acknowledged. (Alexander actually represents the king as a gay man who tarries with women primarily for procreative purposes.) The lone male-female sex scene is presented more as a struggle for control than a loving encounter. When it comes to tenderness, Alexander reserves that emotion for his male companion, Hephaestion.

Second billing after Farrell goes to Angelina Jolie, who plays Olympias as a hybrid of Hamlet's Gertrude and I, Claudius' Livia. Jolie keeps her clothes on, but that doesn't prevent her from spending a lot of time cuddling with snakes. It's a weird, enjoyably over-the-top performance. I'm tempted to say that Rosario Dawson is underused, but the sex scene, which offers us a lingering view of all of her assets, argues against that statement (and is almost reason enough to pay for admission). Still, almost anyone with a great body could have played the part. Val Kilmer is fine as Philip the one-eyed king, and Jared Leto is subdued as Alexander's male lover. Icons Anthony Hopkins (as Ptolemy the narrator), Christopher Plummer (as Aristotle), and Brian Blessed (as a nameless wrestling instructor) provide a respectability quotient. (Blessed strengthens the I, Claudius connection, since he was Augustus in the BBC mini-series.)

Although I'm sure this isn't the case, one could fashion a convincing argument that Stone made this movie for himself. It has limited - if any - mass appeal, and is likely to make Warner Brothers executives nervous. Those going to this film expecting glorious battles and epic triumphs along the lines of Braveheart or Gladiator will feel cheated. In fact, one of the least accomplished elements of Alexander are the battles. They are filmed in a plodding, unenergetic manner, and the editing is choppy. The Lord of the Rings recently proved how engaging a well-assembled conflict can be. Alexander shows the opposite. Another source of annoyance is the incessant chattering by Anthony Hopkins, whose voiceover narrative provides Alexander's skeleton. It's too bad there's not enough meat on those bones to make this a worthwhile motion picture experience. Alexander becomes the second big-budget, ancient world epic to fail this year. Unlike Troy, however, which tried unsuccessfully to please crowds, Alexander doesn't bother to make the attempt. Never has Stone's predilection for maverick cinema been more evident and more damaging to the end product.

Alexander (United States/United Kingdom/Germany/Netherlands, 2004)

Run Time: 2:55
U.S. Release Date: 2004-11-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1