Monday, February 20, 2012

Cleopatra (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)

Having read a review a few years ago that suggested viewers skip this film and just watch Carry on Cleo, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this. It's best watched on the biggest TV screen you can find, particularly for set-pieces like Cleopatra's entry into Rome, but the three performances at the heart of the film hold it together and stop viewers from getting lost in the spectacle, including Taylor. Playing Cleopatra more as a desperate survivor with a fondness for Roman soldiers and less as a femme fatale may have gone over less well, but she's actually a more human Cleo than most, even if she has lost some of the historical Cleopatra's political know-how (though she doesn't do too badly there either - especially next to Mark Antony, who as usual has all the political know-how of a five-year-old).

One of the nicest things about this film for me was that the writers really know their stuff. There are a few howlers of course - Octavian shouldn't be in the senate, he was a teenager, Caesar and Cleo weren't married in any way, Octavian takes the name Augustus far too early, and Romulus and Remus didn't enter Rome, they founded it. Cleopatra and mark Antony's three children are also written out all together, with the focus entirely on her child with Caesar, Caesarion. I suspect most of these are deliberate though, particularly as regards Octavian - trying to explain his youth and what he was going to become afterwards would make an already extremely long film even longer. Generally speaking, these characters seem truly steeped in their world, reading Catullus, dressing some of the dancers who accompany Cleopatra into Rome in wings reminiscent of the goddess Isis, with whom she identifies, and so on.

Of course, this film is infamous for two things - bringing Taylor and Burton together, and nearly bankrupting Twentieth Century Fox. The huge spectacles are certainly impressive, and it's great actually to see the Battle of Actium for once. This battle is so often talked about in television and Shakespearean versions of this story, but for practical and budgetary reasons, we hardly ever get to see it - it's brilliant to finally see Antony's downfall as it happens (and Octavian's seasickness is both historically accurate and highly amusing). There are too many huge scenes, though, and the film doesn't really need them. Cleopatra's wink to Caesar at the end of her ridiculously overdone entrance into Rome is beautiful and you can see the point - she certainly makes an impression as a Queen and the film makes its mark as an epic. But it's too much, and it goes on for too long. Ultimately, the film would not only be cheaper, but better without it (or with a pared-down version anyway).

More at Cleopatra (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)