mon 22/04/2024

Cleopatra | reviews, news & interviews

Cleopatra

Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor as the Queen of the Nile remains mesmeric - but not for the reasons you may think

The poster that heralded Cleopatra's New York premiere

If Mae West was once described as a plumber’s idea of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor, clad in gold and covered in real diamonds, is Hollywood’s ideal in Cleopatra (1963). Sumptuously restored to 2K DCPs and rereleased on the big screen, Taylor’s beauty and the chemistry with future husband Richard Burton remain throbbingly alive - in a production so mired and luckless that it tried to spend its way out of trouble.

Winning four Oscars, Cleopatra became the highest-grossing film of its year. Its $300m modern equivalent production cost will forever be outshone by its own scandal: Taylor and Burton’s affair, a sexy tumult punctuated by exquisite jewels from Bulgari. Original reviews of 1963 mostly damn the film, ridiculing Taylor’s performance and virtually every aspect of the movie itself.

Make no mistake, Cleopatra is a classic. But the clash between script and image is insurmountable

Time allows redress to some contemporary biases but Cleopatra is a child of its age. For example, the film’s long overture, intermission and final segment (much longer than the equivalent in Lawrence of Arabia) seem a waste of time. What's with all the music playing while we watch a picture of a curtain with an Egyptian motif? What were people doing in these longueurs, finding their seats? Buying an ice cream? Chatting with friends as they removed their hats and gloves? Now this time can be used to tweet, check emails and notify Foursquare that you are in an actual cinema.

Cleopatra's flabby 243-minute running time will make the most disciplined mind wander. Even then, make no mistake, Cleopatra is a classic: it is iconic - and its images and production values are amongst the strongest in cinematic history. But the clash between script and image is insurmountable. Amidst the sumptuous, no-expense-spared production design, the script is wildly uneven. No wonder: Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman and Ben Hecht were rewriting it almost daily - with stories based on Carlo Mario Franzero's book 'The Life and Times of Cleopatra'. Plutarch, Suetonius and Appian get enough screen credit to be WGA. With dialogue as on-the-nose as, "But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!", it's not Taylor's lack of skill that's to blame. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton also struggle.

The delight of Cleopatra is how captured its era: not ancient Rome or Egypt but the 1960s, a time when filmmaking used hope as a strategy. This is not a smoothly running machine: Burton rides like a cowboy (so did Jackie Kennedy). Taylor’s voice is a bit too high for what we may have expected of Cleopatra: her howl of, “Antony!” grates like nails on a blackboard, earning its status as one of cinema’s more hysterical screams, outstripping Shatner’s “Khan!”. Poor Rex Harrison looks as if he is in another film or wants to be. A clunky design imperative has gowns and heavy eyelid glitter (a detail brought out in this restoration) over-matching the star's violet eyes.

For all its fatal flaws, Cleopatra is a big screen must-see - and you’ll get more viewing enjoyment if beforehand you watch the impressive HD premiere piece on YouTube, Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood – an extra that is also available on the DVD. There, you’ll genuinely gasp when the queen of Egypt’s golden barge is launched into the water. Yes, it is an impressive in the film too but seeing this amazing structure documentary-style will seriously drop your jaw. It's easy to do an autopsy on Cleopatra because they don't make films like this any more. But they made Cleopatra, which is endlessly fascinating for almost all the wrong reasons.

Watch a clip of Cleopatra entering Rome

The unique delight in 'Cleopatra' is how it captured its era: not ancient Rome or Egypt but the 1960s

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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