It may seem a little strange at first that director Oliver Stone chose to tackle a period epic as his latest film. Stone, who is one of the most political filmmakers of all time, is best known for telling controversial stories dealing with politics, 1960s culture and Americana obsessions.
Yet in comparing “Alexander” to a majority of Stone’s other work, the story of the legendary conqueror fits right in: it examines war, controversy and a tortured protagonist, and the movie is a heavy-handed biopic. Unfortunately, Stone’s past experiences in crafting biographies do not serve him as well as the audience might expect.
“Alexander” portrays the life of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell), the young Macedonian king. Stone’s method for storytelling is nothing original, and it is particularly hard to buy into. The movie is told in flashback by Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), who accompanied Alexander on his adventures.
It’s widely known that Stone is a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to cause a lot of controversy, and he is a master at articulating debatable topics that are sure to get the public’s attention. “Alexander” is no exception, particularly regarding sexuality. Alexander is portrayed as bisexual and while there is nothing incredibly explicit between two men, there is a strong homosexual subtext to the film.
The movie also falls victim to a reliance on motifs and symbolisms that lack subtlety, particularly in the constant appearance of a hawk and snakes. One of the most surprising aspects of “Alexander” is that the film only features two legitimate battle sequences. Stone has apparently fallen in love with slow motion, as that technique is overused and barely effective. At times it is hard to follow the action due to the confusing editing and unstable camera, but the grandeur of these gigantic fights work best when Stone uses wide angles that lend a tremendous scope to the fighting.
Much of the success of “Alexander” lies upon the shoulders of Colin Farrell, who does an admirable job as the protagonist. Farrell’s portrayal is dynamic, as he makes the character heroic, believable and even sympathetic. Val Kilmer is over-the-top as Alexander’s father Philip, and Angelina Jolie — complete with an absurd Russian accent — hams it up as the conqueror’s mother Olympia. Only Farrell and Jared Leto (“Requiem for a Dream”) as Hephaestion — who is finely subdued — give decent performances.
Yet even for its prodding nature, “Alexander” still manages to be entertaining at times and gives an intriguing, if atypical look at a historical figure who has become much more than a legend. The costumes and detailed sets are beautiful to behold, and even Vangelis’s unique and fitting score is bearable. Stone must be given some credit for venturing out into new territory, even if his overall product is rather flawed. It is certainly a challenge to condense such a remarkable life, and it’s refreshing to know Stone isn’t afraid of challenging himself as a filmmaker. “Alexander” doesn’t come close to being a great epic, but it is far from being a complete failure.