My Lovely Horse, Part Three
One of the benefits of going to a school with a slightly unorthodox curriculum was that in addition to all the usual stuff, like Maths, English, Chemistry and History, for an hour a week we took a class called Classical Studies, in which we learned about things like Greek theatre, the archaeological excavations at Mycenae, the Roman occupation of Britain, and - crucially for this week's spouting of bias - the particulars of the Trojan Wars. I say 'benefit', because I found it all rather fascinating (and it got me a reasonable GCSE), but either the subject matter or the way in which it was taught was enough to give many of my classmates a severe case of Homer phobia. Hopefully this will not deter them from popping along to see Wolfgang Peterson's epic blockbuster on this subject, Troy.
Based rather loosely on the old legends (Homer himself gets credited as an 'inspiration'), this is primarily the story of lethal but capricious warrior Achilles (Bradley Pitt), who spends his time variously fighting for or arguing with the ruthless and power-hungry High King of Greece, Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Agamemnon has conquered all of Greece, and now his ambition turns in the direction of the great city of Troy in Asia Minor. He gets his chance when Helen (Diana Kruger), the wife of his brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) runs off with visiting Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom), much to the horror of Paris' brother Hector (Eric Bana). This, Agamemnon thinks, would make a smashing pretext for going to Troy and replacing the existing management. With the aid of the trickster king of Ithaca, Odysseus (Sean Bean), he persuades Achilles to join his cause, and a thousand ships set sail for death and glory...
Now obviously there was always going to be a good deal of snipping and tightening of the story in order for this film not to be even longer than The Lord of the Rings - and so it proves. The siege of Troy, rather than ten years, lasts about a fortnight (and even this time includes a lengthy lay-off for both sides), and the plot and cast list are correspondingly cut down. So, for anyone else who knows the story, there's no Hecuba, no Cassandra, no Philoctetes, Troilus or Cressida. (But, rather unexpectedly and charmingly, Aeneas does get a single scene.) The overtly mythological elements of the story are almost wholly removed, too, with the exception of a single scene with Achilles' mother Thetis (whose divinity is not elaborated upon). A shame, but I can understand why - it's not as if epic fantasy films about huge sieges have set the box office on fire lately, is it?
More importantly, Achilles himself is retooled as a slightly more conventionally heroic figure. He still sulks and thinks of nothing but his own reputation, but instead of the, ahem, traditional Greek practices usually ascribed to him, he gets a girl as a love interest - Trojan priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne - like Keira Knightley, an alumnus of The Phantom Menace's Amidalettes). Pitt certainly looks the part, but never quite brings the character to life - Eric Bana is really much better as his Trojan counterpart. But about half of you will probably be pleased to know Bradley gets his bum out a few times, and the script rewrites the story to a considerable degree to give him the maximum screen time possible.
Of course, the danger with this sort of film is that it will degenerate into a bunch of men in skirts and questionable hairstyles declaiming on battlements to no great effect. The spectre of absurdity swoops over Troy a couple of times, but the film manages to hang in there as a serious drama by, well, taking itself very seriously. The action scenes are top-notch, gritty and bloody, with the CGI (I assume there must have been some) virtually unnoticeable for the most part. Somehow Petersen even manages to get through the scene where Paris picks up a bow and arrow for the first time without a knowing snigger running through the audience.
But more important is the film's insistence that this was a political war, fought on a pretext by an ambitious and ruthless ruler. The Trojans are (mostly) flawed, but decent and good people - the Greeks are depicted much less flatteringly, Agamemnon and Menelaus in particular. The film isn't especially subtle about this (or indeed anything else), but it's enormously refreshing to see a major release drawn in such all-pervading shades of grey. (On the other hand, the film's total lack of humour or irony might not appeal to many people today - but I hope this isn't the case.)
To be fair, Troy never quite catches fire and really thrills or moves, but it's a solid story, well-told for the most part. Some of the exposition is rather clunky - but then again there's so much back-story that's probably inevitable - and the climax seems a little bit rushed and perfunctory, but this is a commendable and impressive adaptation of the story. An unusually thoughtful and classy blockbuster - recommended.