WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Called a son of Zeus, it’s small wonder that Alexander, the progeny of Philip of Macedon and Olympias, grows up with dreams of equalling the feats of Achilles. By the team he is 25 Alexander can truly be called ‘The Great’, as he has conquered the greater part of the known world; that this is not enough for him is part of his glory, and the entire reason for his downfall.
I like to think of myself (as any self-respecting human should) as a man of catholic tastes who interests himself in as many things as possible; but there are limits, and while I can explain the rules of rugby union in some depth, I know virtually nothing about dressage. Similarly, while I could ramble on about the history of the electric guitar for a while, I am woefully ignorant about all aspects of Classical History. Oliver Stone’s Alexander, then, represents an ideal opportunity to learn something.
Our tutor is Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), a veteran of Alexander’s campaigns who is looking back on the life of the Macedonian leader with the help of a scribe. He takes us back to Alexander’s early life under the tutelage of Christopher Plummer’s Aristotle and the boy’s fiery relationships with his mysterious, protective mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) and militarily astute but violently drunk father Philip (Val Kilmer), who schools the youngster in famous Greek legends and introduces him to his mighty horse Bucephalus. Philip has ambitions for Macedon and Greece, but his idea of expansionism means taking a Greek wife, threatening Alexander’s own succession and leading to the youngster’s banishment after he challenges his father. However, Philip is murdered soon afterwards (as Ptolemy tells us) and Alexander is installed as ruler; he uses his strategic nous to sweep through Persia, motivating his 40,000 men at Babylon to defeat 250,000 under Darius, who flees and abandons the city.
Alexander and his friends – most notably intimate ally Hephaistion (Jared Leto) – briefly make the most of Babylon’s luxury, but Alexander is driven to pursue Darius and, once his body is found, explore the far corners of the Earth, taking on a Barbarian wife in Rosario Dawson’s Roxane as part of his quest for global glory. His wanderlust has consequences, however, and Olympias’ reminders that Alexander has enemies at home and in the inner circles of his ‘mobile empire’ prove timely, as dissenting voices grow in volume and resolve. It takes defeat, near death in India and an army revolt for Alexander to turn back for Babylon and Macedon, but he is destined not to return and he perishes from a fever at the age of 32 – through natural causes or potentially by other hands.
Running at almost three hours, Alexander follows in the tradition of films such as Spartacus, Ben-Hur and more recently Gladiator, which sparked the short-lived revival in the historical epic. Unlike these films, however (and like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, which brought the revival to an abrupt end), Stone’s suffers from several grave flaws, chief amongst which is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to say about its hero. Yes, we are taken from barren Persian desert to the frozen mountains of the Hindu Kush and the lush jungles of India; and yes, there’s an impressive sense of scale to the battle scenes (though in the first we are repeatedly – and unnecessarily – taken out of the action to literally see an eagle’s eye view of the battle), but as Alexander and his army cuts a swathe through the known world it’s difficult to know what drives him. Alexander is revealed to enjoy the company of Hephaistion and other men more than is comfortable to his wife and some of his soldiers; he inherits the tactical guile, ruthlessness and drunkenness of his father; and he struggles to break the spell of his overbearing mother; yet the film neither educates us about nor makes us root for Alexander the man.
Much of the blame for this lies with the people responsible for casting, styling, directing and being Colin Farrell in the title role. In his first appearance as the teenage Alexander (the boy who plays the young Alexander is fine), Farrell’s blonde wig makes him look like a stereotypically poofy hairdresser, and Farrell spends much of the film looking blank and confused, matters not helped by the thick make-up that makes him and his friends appear more like rejects from Velvet Goldmine or Stone’s own The Doors than ancient Greece (the Velvet Goldmine thought exists partly due to the presence of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Cassander, but mostly because of the preponderance of mascara). Unlike Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven, Farrell can at least shout properly, but this merely highlights another problem. Since Farrell was apparently incapable of flattening out his Irish accent, Kilmer’s Philip and most of the other Macedonians adopt it (or as close to it as they can manage) as their own. In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem – one can’t expect everyone to adopt the tones of an authentic Macedonian or a Shakespearian thesp – but in practice it’s most off-putting since the lilting brogue undercuts the epic gravity that Stone is aiming for elsewhere. It doesn’t help, of course, that old Ptolemy is channelling Richard Harris in Gladiator, via Port Talbot in Wales, or that Jolie opts for a grab-bag of East European inflections.
The lack of discipline demonstrated by the accent problem is also felt in the shape – or lack of it – in the film as a whole. Just when things are about to get interesting, as an assassination attempt by Philotas (Joseph Morgan) fails and his father Parmenion is murdered, Alexander cuts back in time to the murder of Philip, implicating Olympias in the deed. Why could this not have been shown in order? Furthermore, the impressive orderliness of the desert battle is replaced in India by shaky, hand-held camerawork as the army struggles with well-equipped soldiers on elephants (though who this enemy was, I had no idea); Stone also starts messing around with the colour scheme when Alexander is wounded, for what reason he alone knows. The lack of structure in the film’s second half almost certainly leads to the viewer losing interest, just when it should be building to a big climax. Perhaps most damningly of all, I promise I was paying attention but I had no idea what time period the film was set in (the 4th Century BC, as it happens), suggesting that Alexander fails to serve its purpose as a history lesson (all the stuff about people being made satraps flew straight over my head).
Alexander looks handsome but it’s just not right, telling the story of Alexander’s life through a jumbled combination of narration and re-enactment and constantly passing over enlightening details in favour of lurid sensationalism. There’s a glimpse of the world’s first cosmopolite, a man who vied with the gods for legendary achievements, but far too much of the golden-haired lover with the troublesome mother, and far too little storytelling drive. All praise to Stone for his ambition, but on this occasion he has flown much too close to the sun.