Ridley Scott’s modern classic may take a lot of cues from the likes of Spartacus and Ben Hur but in many ways it surpasses them.
The thrilling combat sequences are as good as any committed to celluloid and as impressive the computer generated recreation of ancient Rome is, it’s the wonderful dialogue, characters and design that breathe life into it. Russell Crowe charismatically heads a magnificent cast, featuring Richard Harris as the ageing Marcus Aurelius Caesar tired of conquest and wishing to leave a legacy after his death, veteran Shakespearean Derek Jacobi providing the political intrigue behind the scenes and scheming to replace the Emperor with a democratic republic, Oliver Reed as Maximus’ new mentor dreaming of the recreation of past glories and Connie Nielsen as the conniving Lucilla whose true motive is the safety of her son. But it is Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus who is the show stopper, brilliantly portraying a spoilt child whose ambition combined with weakness of character and desire for a father’s love twists him into a malicious tyrant; the scene in which he assassinates his father is superb. It even takes time out to take side swipes at modern politics and the media; “Rome is the mob. You can take away their freedom, but show them a little magic to distract them and they will still love you for it.”.
This is what brings the film to life, and this level of sophistication makes its contemporaries such as Alexander, Braveheart or even Scott’s own Kingdom Of Heaven look like school pantomimes in comparison. Proof that the Hollywood system in the hands of a true artist can produce something genuinely beautiful.