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Alexander (2004)

Fortune favors the bold

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 175 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

By the time the Macedonian king Alexander was 25 years old, he had conquered nine tenths of the world then known to the Greeks, and when he died aged 32 in 323 BC, his relentless march to the east had created a vast empire of well over two million square miles, extending well into India. He was never defeated on the field of war. Yet while Alexander's achievements are easily measured in battles and borders, his character remains terra incognita, for even within his own lifetime he had become a superman in the Greek imagination – not just regarded as 'great', but a convenient repository for everything by which the Greeks defined their concept of 'greatness' – so that the earliest accounts of his deeds already clouded the facts with a rich layering of myth and fantasy, and later 'histories' accrued further tales of an ever more fanciful nature. So while, as has become de rigeur for today's epic films, Oliver Stone's biopic 'Alexander' must (and indeed does) stunningly recreate the spectacle of Alexander's greatest victories – the Battle of Gaugamela, where he routed a quarter of a million Persians with just 47,000 men, and a bloody skirmish in the Indian forests against armed elephants – really the biggest challenge facing Stone was to flesh out the unknown man behind the martial statistics, without straying too far beyond the bounds of plausibility.

Stone's solution is to make the mystery and mythologisation of Alexander's character a central part of the story. The narrator, the elderly Pharaoh Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), grapples with his contradictory memories of Alexander's expedition and exploits, and has trouble making his mind up whether Alexander (Colin Farrell) was a misunderstood dreamer, a shrewd self-promoter, a magnanimous internationalist or a brutal megalomaniac. The complex portrait that emerges is of a man driven ever onwards both by a need to impress and outdo his gruff father Philip (Val Kilmer), and by an intense love-hate relationship with his Machiavellian, snake-stroking mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) – in other words, Stone's gay Alexander is a pre-Freudian momma's boy, a point brought home when Philip suggests the myth of Oedipus as an illustration of his son's destiny. Other myths are also shown to inspire Alexander's life right from his childhood, paving the way for his own future as a living legend. He is repeatedly compared, both by others and by himself, to the Homeric warrior Achilles (who Olympias claims to be a blood relative), to the great hero and traveller Heracles (also said to be a son of Zeus), and to the civilising god Dionysus (who also journeyed through India and was worshipped by Alexander's mother) – although whether Alexander cynically manipulates these stories in his own interests or actually begins to believe his own press – 'son of Zeus' and all – is left an open question.

So as a psychological examination of the heroic temperament, 'Alexander' is far more multi-faceted than the recent 'Troy' – and its analysis of imperialism as a mixture of grand ideals and corrupt tyranny shows a subtlety not normally associated with Stone's work, as well as neatly resonating with the imperialist ventures of our own era (Alexander is after all imposing Western rule on what is now Iraq, and pursuing a bearded fugitive into the mountains of Afghanistan). The film's scale is magnificent, and its sets (including recreations of the hanging gardens of Babylon and the library of Alexandria) are breathtaking in their detail. Yet apart from the occasional poor dialogue, some ridiculous overacting from Jolie, and the constant shampoo-commercial horror of Farrell's dyed-blonde hair, all of which could be forgiven, 'Alexander' has one far greater problem – it is dull. By the time its three hours are over, you will feel as exhausted as Alexander at the end of his epic campaign – but not as enriched.

It's Got: Beautiful recreations of the Library of Alexandria and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, vast and bloody battles, and all the usual classic Brit actors roped in (even Brian Blessed as a wrestling trainer who – you guessed it – bellows his instructions).

It Needs: Some epic editing.


Great man, quite good film.