Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Few actors have ever come to embody a historical figure in such a powerful way."

She ruled the Egyptian empire for nearly 20 years, yet when people think of Cleopatra today they usually picture Elizabeth Taylor. Few actors have ever come to embody a historical figure in such a powerful way. Though it owes as much to Shakespeare's interpretation and to Roman propaganda as to the historical record, this interpretation of the great queen's life at least succeeds in conveying something of the intelligence and force of personality her opponents feared. In the process, it showcases one of the greatest female lead performances of the Sixties.

Beginning with Cleopatra's legendary seduction of Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) - having herself secretly delivered to his quarters inside a rolled-up carpet - the film goes on to cover her relationship with Mark Anthony (Richard Burton) and their eventual doom. It's notable for the ferocious sparring between the pair and their intense sexual chemistry, as the two actors were falling in love at the same time. This is made more spectacular by the film's representation of Egypt as supremely decadent, in stunning visual contrast to the grand yet austere style of Rome familiar from so many other cinematic epics.

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ReniƩ and Vittorio Nino Novarese's stunning costume design presents the Romans in white or earth colours, the Egyptians in spectacular shades of teal and gold, when indeed they are clothed at all. Nudity might be a less notable component of cinema today but here it has lost none of its impact with time, with topless dancers providing a metaphor for Cleopatra's own powers of seduction, never distracting from but always directing the gaze toward Taylor.

None of this came cheap and Cleopatra remains, in real terms, one of the most expensive films ever made, something 20th Century Fox would come to regret despite its box office success. Storywise it has a lot of problems, at times meandering and struggling to explain the reasons for characters' behaviour. Hiding this behind the pretext of telling a true story is a strategy somewhat undermined by the number of historical inaccuracies on display. That said, it's a notch above most of its contemporaries and the glamour with which its heroine dazzles her men works equally well on most viewers. There is nothing dry or staid about this dubious history lesson and by delivering such strong characters it succeeds in breathing life into the dead, in making its audience care about conflicts long past.

Perhaps most interestingly, Cleopatra is a film that interweaves the personal and the political in a way that has relevance to real world events right through the ages, revealing a surprising amount of intelligence in the process. The balance between its intellectual and sensual aspects is difficult to maintain and has clearly made some critics uneasy but is key to its remarkable staying power and the iconic position it has found within the history of cinema.

Reviewed on: 29 Apr 2013
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An epic based on the life of the legendary queen.
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Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian, Darryl F. Zanuck

Writer: Joseph L Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman, Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian, Carlo Mario Franzero, Ben Hecht

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown, George Cole, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Kenneth Haigh, Andrew Keir, Martin Landau

Year: 1963

Runtime: 192 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, US, Switzerland


BIFF 2009
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