Monday, November 29, 2004

Movie Review: Alexander (2004)

A film by Oliver Stone

One of the most valuable lessons a young fiction writer must learn is "show, don't tell". What this means is that rather than handing the reader every point the author wants to get across, the writer should let the details come out naturally as a part of the story. To illustrate with examples what sort of a man the main character is, to show the reader and let the reader see for himself. With film being such a visual medium, this is not a problem that I expect to encounter very often when I go to the theatre. Unfortunately, this was a big problem with "Alexander".

"Alexander" is narrated by an aging Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), a former warrior chief who was with Alexander (Colin Farrell) during his rise to glory. Ptolemy is teaching his students, explaining who Alexander was and the difference between myth and man and why even those who were there have a hard time telling the difference when they look back and remember. Ptolemy, with long stretches of narration, explains to the viewer what sort of upbringing Alexander had with his mother Olympius (Angelina Jolie) and King Philip (Val Kilmer), and what sort of man he grew up to be. We see how abusive Philip was to Olympius and how much she hated her husband. Olympius, from an early age was poisoning the mind of young Alexander against Philip and Philip knew it. That Olympius had a large influence on Alexander's life is stated in no uncertain terms. Then we are brought forward years later when Alexander is on campaign. We are told that he has become a bold warrior, and we see Alexander lead his men into battle. What we don't see his Alexander grow into a bold warrior. We don't see the events that shape Alexander into a man. We see Alexander as a youth talking about conquering to the East, which explains his campaigns against Persia and beyond.

"Alexander" lacks a strong thread of a narrative running through the film. Perhaps the story of Alexander the Great is too big to be told in a three hour movie, but what we are given is bits and pieces which flash forward and back in time and are introduced and narrated by Ptolemy. We are told the details of Alexander's life, and then we see the portion of the movie that follows up on that detail and that explanation. It is almost as if the theatre were a college classroom and every now and then Ptolemy pauses the movie to explain what has come before and what is about to come before letting the movie continue. Because of this what we see is really just episodes from the short life of Alexander the Great. We see Alexander's great love for his friend (and perhaps lover) Hephaistion (Jared Leto), and the trouble that his marriage to the barbarian Roxane (Rosario Dawson) caused amongst his men. But there is no narrative here. "Alexander" is a collection of scenes.

Another problem with "Alexander" is that Collin Farrell does not convey just how impressive a man Alexander must have been. To have done so much that was so unprecedented must have taken a force of will and a magnetic personality that Farrell just does not exude, not as Russell Crowe did in "Gladiator" and not as Mel Gibson did in "Braveheart." Farrell did well here, and he is a fine actor, but he doesn't exude the leadership that Alexander must have had and that Crowe and Gibson were able to in their movies.

By no means am I trying to suggest that "Alexander" is a waste of time. It isn't. It is a huge historical epic movie (and I like those) and it is beautiful to look at. Most of the actors give a fantastic, believable performance in their roles and Angelina Jolie is delightful in her over-the-top portrayal of Olympius. There is a campy feel to Olympius with her accent that honestly reminds me more of Natascha (from the Bullwinkle cartoon) than anything else, but the most fun "Alexander" has is when Jolie is onscreen. Honestly, "Alexander" is a bit of a mess with no actual story that it is trying to tell, but it is still an entertaining mess if the expectations are lowered appropriately. "Alexander" is not the Academy Award worthy movie that many had hoped, but there are worse ways to spend three hours.

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