Not Quite Great: A Review of "Alexander"

Oliver Stone's "Alexander," a flaccid, frenetic historical epic, has the look and feel of a child's finger painting on a $160 million canvas. Despite a strong visual flair and good performances, the film is marred by lack of coherence and thematic might. It is a work of seriousness and spirit, but appears desperately in search of an organizing principle, with key scenes that seem either far too long or far too short, and a woefully underdeveloped center character despite the sprawling three-hour narrative taken to depict him.

The plot should be generally familiar to those with at least a passing interest in world history: In the 300s B.C., Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell), the king of Macedonia, leads an eight-year series of sieges and conquests against the vast Persian Empire, Egypt and India, to control nearly all of the known world before his death at the young age of 33. The story is narrated in flashbacks by the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), who is dictating the history to scribes. Early on, Ptolemy drops an important statement about Alexander (or, at least, how Stone views him): "Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephaistion's thighs."

Hephaistion (Jared Leto) is Alexander's male lover, in what is possibly the most honest portrayal of bisexuality in a major Hollywood movie since that of Sharon Stone's character in "Basic Instinct." Indeed, the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion is one of the most consistent aspects of the film, foreshadowed by discussions of the legend of Achilles and Patroclus between young Alexander and his father Philip (Val Kilmer), and evolving into a running plot point that figures largely in the picture's concluding scenes.

Unfortunately, the same level of attention is not given to other details of Alexander's life. The screenplay, by Stone and television writers Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, is instead content to have important battles and events mentioned by Ptolemy and/or other characters, but never seen. It is perhaps here that the major fault of "Alexander" lies: Stone has opted too frequently to tell rather than show, a decision that has a detrimental effect on the overall urgency and flow of the movie.

Additionally, Stone seems preoccupied with trying to demystify his protagonist's persona, an unconventional (but interesting) choice for this kind of film. There is no typical villain; Alexander's major enemies are the demons within himself. He is scarcely represented as the kind of figure who could corral thousands of followers in a campaign to exceed the known borders of the world and conquer unfamiliar lands. Stone's Alexander is indecisive, conflicted and obsessive, a pitiable individual rather than an impressive one.

Farrell, wide-eyed and weepy for most of the movie, competently portrays the Alexander that has been written for this dramatization. Some may erroneously fault him for Stone's deficient choices, but his performance is a good one. The film's standout, however, is Angelina Jolie as Alexander's serpentine mother Olympias, who shines in only a few scenes (despite being less than a year older than Farrell, and apparently using a Russian accent). As Roxane, Alexander's wife and queen, Rosario Dawson is obviously present for her looks rather than the range she has shown in other roles. It is also significant that the film's sole sex scene is reserved for her character, not Hephaistion.

Stone is not a director known for subtlety, but he is known for a certain visual style, and a particular ability to harness a large amount of historical and political information in his storytelling. With "Alexander," his first American film in five years, he has missed the mark. Though the movie actually gets better and better as it goes, and while he stages two grand battle scenes (which would rival even those of superior war pictures if edited a little more carefully), it's difficult to justify some of Stone's narrative choices. "Alexander" is not great, but, with a little more work in various areas, it might have been.

Rated R
Oliver Stone, director
*** (out of five)


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