Ounce for Troy ounce a good movie

Wednesday, 19 May 2004 — 10:47am | Film, Full reviews

Troy ends with an almost joking dedication, “Inspired by Homer’s Iliad,” when adaptation-wise it more precisely sits somewhere in between O Brother, Where Art Thou? being inspired by the Odyssey and, to draw an obligatory Peter O’Toole connection for a moment, Lawrence of Arabia‘s roots in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Never mind the Homeric credit; this is a film best watched for what it is, which is not at all an arm of mythology, but rather a dramatized historical portrait of mythmaking.

Before I get any further, it should be made clear that discussing spoiler material is quite necessary for a proper appraisal of Wolfgang Petersen’s latest offering to the deified audiences of epic cinema. Suffice to say, if you don’t know that Achilles gets shot in the heel, that’s about equivalent to watching Titanic and not knowing the boat sinks, and there is no hope for you.

That leads me to the first curiosity about Troy, which is where it situates itself in its assumptions about what and what not to consider a priori, a problem for any historically-minded film to resolve. For example, Saving Private Ryan never feels it necessary to explain the nitty-gritty of the significance of the Normandy landings and what that whole D-Day schtick was about in the first place. A more recent example is The Passion of the Christ, which asserts some degree of familiarity with the source material on the part of the audience, and tends to fare better with those who know who the likes of that Simon of Cyrene guy are.

Troy‘s assumptions in this regard make it an accessible film without ever openly insulting the audience, with the asterisk that its source material is less the Iliad than the archaeological remains of the titular city, and what else we know of the classical civilizations. David Benioff’s screenplay freely takes Homer’s dramatis personae and the who-kills-whom scorecard and embellishes it with characterizations specific to the film, which work when they are present. What the film appears to be trying to accomplish is to re-enact not Homer himself, but what Homer may have written about, and thus it is imbued with a worldview of secular realism, with no sign of cleanliness’ next-door neighbour aside from the beliefs of the characters themselves. This is a more than legitimate excuse for the liberties taken, as in the same respect, better films have done worse.

But without the mythical element behind it all, Troy faces a unique challenge: it has to make the human characters interesting enough to carry the story. Given that these characters are in many ways archetypal personas defined by their Homeric stature, this is no easy proposition. In exactly three cases, it lives up to the challenge, thanks in large part to the acting power behind these roles. These are Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector, and the consistently marvelous Peter O’Toole as Priam.

All three lend physical personality to their characters in their own ways. With Achilles, we see the stature of an epic character defined not by heroics but by a rebellious arrogance, as well as what proves to be a unique fighting style to call his own. Hector is perhaps the strongest presence in the film, and walks tall with a sense of heroic nobility that goes unmatched. Eric Bana was long overdue for a star-making role despite coming close with a hammerhead shark and a big green angry guy, and this may prove to be it. Priam is a kingly character, and besides, this is Peter O’Toole we’re talking about; sadly, his screentime is just as limited as fellow Lawrence alumnus Omar Sharif’s in Hidalgo, which comes off as almost wasteful.

This is not to say that Troy is not without its distractions, and there are many. Many of them involve pacing, particularly of the first and last act. The opening is riddled with an excess of title cards that cheat their way around exposition, and the initiation of the conflict proved to be a pickle when avoiding any mucking about with that god brouhaha. At the end, after the point at which the Iliad has had its fill, the movie suddenly realizes that it has some unfinished business, and rushes to completion. It’s as if someone in the editing department realized that once Hector is out of the picture, the glue holding the movie together starts to dissipate, so why not wrap everything up in a hurry? Before long, Troy is sacked and Achilles is shot in the heel, all because of a trick with a horse that is in obvious reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The conflict resolution is, in a word, patchy.

Conversely, the movie has its best moments when it takes its time, particularly with the two key duels – first between Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), and later, Achilles and Hector – and Priam’s key scene, when he appeals to Achilles for an honourable funeral for his son. Believe it or not, the 160-minute epic could have done well with being longer, taking its time to properly transition between scenes and establish roles such as Sean Bean’s all-too-brief appearance as Odysseus, while remaining true to itself as what William Goldman would call the “good parts” version.

One would think that a film that promoted itself with the tagline, “If love is worth fighting for, then it has known no greater battle,” would be a little more competent in the romantic side of things. Unfortunately, this is not the case; despite an attempt to salvage Achilles’ hero status by overplaying the captivity of Briseis (Rose Byrne), about the only romantic depth we see is in Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Paris as a besotten idealist who acts on infatuation alone and hides behind the nobility of his brother. As for the subject of said infatuaton, Helen of Troy (Diane Kruger) is hardly even a presence, a concern the film dodges by establishing that her supposed beauty had little to do with launching a thousand ships in the first place; again, realpolitik at work in the Ancient World.

Thematically, what holds Troy together and sets its tone as a work of cinema is the relationship between its characters and the very idea of being immortalized in legend. It outright rejects mythical elements such as Achilles’ purported physical immortality, but shows the origin of myth by implication; Achilles is found dead with an arrow in his heel, and such a circumstance overshadows the fact that it is not singularly responsible for his demise. Where this kind of pragmatism falls short is in the case of Agamemnon, who comes out of this story looking the most outright villainous. Brian Cox is only as good a bad guy as the material he’s given – see X2: X-Men United for a recent comparison – and here, it’s not much more than your standard megalomaniacal fare.

There are very few complaints to be had about the production on a technical level. Roger Pratt, best known for his collaborations with Terry Gilliam and saving The Chamber of Secrets from Chris Columbus’ inability to move a camera, shoots Troy entirely in shades of desert yellow, treading the line between consistent and stale, but ultimately producing a look and feel reminiscent of the period epics of the sixties. James Horner’s score is at times in far too close proximity to Hans Zimmer’s work in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down in its use of ethereal vocals in exotic modes, but by the end of the movie, he carves out a Troy theme that manages to stand on its own. While much has been made of the decision to scrap an allegedly more ambitious score by Gabriel Yared, Horner’s work is sufficient to be shortlisted for an award or two, albeit penalized on the basis of originality.

At the end of the day, Troy receives credit for serving as a fairly definitive narrative of the siege of the titular city, if not quite a retelling of Homer. It is at least as good as some of its lesser big-budget costume epic forebears, the kind that rightly won few awards in its day but still sees release and critique; like Spartacus, but an hour and an Olivier shorter. Flaws are noticeable in an abundance proportional to expectations and a priori baggage, but by no means is Petersen’s project a disaster like the one that befell its namesake.

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