Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

In the third century BC, for Macedonia's head honcho to conquer half the known world before he was 30 is truly worthy of the epithet Great, unless you look on him as a dysfunctional, obsessive, mother-fixated, cruel, sexually confused, emotionally immature warrior king, addicted to war.

Cecil B DeMille would have emphasised the pageant, the set piece battles, the courage and golden-haired majesty of this heroic military genius. Oliver Stone takes a more thoughtful, questioning approach that tends to bog down in psychological gobbledegook, especially when Olympias (Angelina Jolie), Alex's mum, is around.

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The film is much too long - five minutes short of three hours - and starts to repeat as one battle follows another, interspersed with scenes of Alexander's disgruntled officer corps wondering what on earth they think they are doing with their lives and why the boss wants to go on and on "until we come to the end," into Asia and India, where fighting bejewelled, bearded, half-naked, dark-skinned natives, astride mammoth beasts with ferocious curved tusks, in slippery forests in the rain is so far from the concept of sun-drenched valour on the dusty plains of Persia that they might as well be in Hades.

Considering the enormity of the project, Stone has not shirked the challenge. He uses old Ptolemy in the process of dictating his memoirs as a clever way of avoiding the anonymity of a voice-over narrative, which works particularly well because of Anthony Hopkins's delivery and Ptolemy's sceptical view of history.

Alexander's story is one of palace intrigue, a bad marriage between fiery, feisty parents and a determination to impress his father Philip (Val Kilmer), who is inclined to dismiss him as a mummy's boy. When Philip is murdered and the aggressively competitive 20-year-old Alexander becomes king, he gathers an army to avenge his father's death and, incidentally, capture Babylon and the lands beyond.

Despite the fact that Macedonians speak with Irish accents - Olympias is an exception, being a foreigner, and Ptolemy is played by a Shakespearean Welshman of knightly repute, who prefers to stay closer to the spirit of Richard Burton than Brendan Behan - they are not Buddy Pack players, such as the support court in King Arthur, but genuine personalities, who overcome the sword-and-sandals stereotype.

The battle scenes are quite spectacular and beautifully shot. Stone has ignored budget restrictions to recreate the terror and grandeur of such conflicts with integrity and ingenuity. The performances are not wanting. Colin Farrell avoids the Charlton Heston style of hero maker by concentrating on Alexander's complex, contradictory nature and Jolie, as the controlling matriarch, provides enough potted philosophy to give Sigmund a brain ache six feet under.

The gayness is handled with discretion and innocence. The only sex scene is between a naked Farrell and an even nakeder Rosario Dawson, as The Great's Afghan wife, during which it would be difficult to discern a hint of awkwardness from the man who (allegedly) loved men.

Obsession can become tedious and Alexander's was conquering other countries. After his army passed by "no occupied territory remained the same". He was ruthless with dissent, executing his own men at the faintest whisper of disloyalty. He even had his father's second wife and their young son killed as an act of political expediency.

"In Persia, you are a great king," his faithful friend tells him, as they force their way ever deeper into the Hindu darklands. "Here, they hate you."

Is this Stone's personal message to the "liberators" of Baghdad?

Reviewed on: 07 Jan 2005
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Alexander packshot
An epic portrait of the legendary conqueror.
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Director: Oliver Stone

Writer: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeta Kalogridis

Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Plummer, Gary Stretch, Connor Paolo, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Tim Pigott-Smith, Raz Degan

Year: 2004

Runtime: 175 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US / UK / Germany / Netherlands


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