movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


[click on photos
for larger versions]

Web site:

Web site:

With Gladiator, Ridley Scott (Alien) has created the Roman epic for a new generation. This epic pageant takes its place among the great fables of a man of principle who stands up to the Roman empire: next to the great screen heroes of Spartacus and Ben-Hur now stands Maximus, "the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, who defied an empire." Russell Crowe fills this archetypal description with the same unswerving, intelligent integrity that made him mesmerizing in L.A. Confidential and The Insider.

Gladiator’s grandeur flows from its confident storytelling, with no need for extraneous fanfare. After a brief historical introduction, the story begins without opening credits, as the Roman army under the command of Maximus prepares to face the Germanic hordes. In the blue-grays of a winter day, Maximus prepares his troops for battle, as the aging emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) looks on. This taut battle sequence establishes the modus operandi of the film, with characters and history established through quiet moments and gestures, before exploding into intricately choreographed violence that passes by at breathtaking speed. Cinematographer John Mathieson films this gore with great clarity, judiciously using slow-motion.

The legacy of Marcus Aurelius becomes the true battleground of the film. Maximus is the "chosen son" of the emperor, who is his dying choice to lead the Roman Empire back to a Republic under the Senate. The Emperor sees his true son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), as untrue to his principles and plans to pass him over for Maximus. Their relationship is reminiscent of Harris’ King Arthur from Camelot, who also worried over the legacy of his kingdom in the hands of his dissolute son--a son who in turn questioned his naturalness as a father. Joaquin Phoenix brings a poignancy to the spoiled and often cruel Commodus, which saves him from becoming a caricature and makes him deserving of pity if not sympathy. When Commodus seizes control and becomes Emperor, Marcus Aurelius’ dream of a Republic is cherished in the hearts of those who loved Marcus Aurelius and distrust Commodus.

As the Emperor’s daughter Lucilla, Connie Nielsen projects an impressive presence and intelligence that was not apparent in the recent Mission to Mars. Trained by her father to be a politician, it is not immediately clear whose side Lucilla is on or if she is capable of an uncalculated moment. Prior to their subsequent marriages, Lucilla and Maximus were romantically involved--but the extent of the relationship and the reasons for its dissolution are only hinted at by the pair. Lucilla becomes another source for Commodus’ jealousy because Commodus loves her as unrequitedly as he loved his father. (Though his incestuous feelings are another reason for modern audience to be disgusted by Commodus, Roman royal siblings were actually permitted to marry.)

After the death of the Emperor, the action splits into two arenas: the political arena of the Senate and palace and the battle arena that the gladiators enter to kill or be killed. The late Oliver Reed delivers the perfect capstone to his career as Proximus, the conniving owner/trainer of the gladiators--who in his youth was a gladiator noble enough to be freed by the late Emperor. Juba (Djimon Hounsou, Amistad) tends to the wounds Maximus sustained fleeing from Commodus’ assassins and becomes his partner in slavery and in the ring. Known as "The Spaniard," Maximus brings his impressive skills as a combatant and a leader to Proximus’ troupe, helping to win them an invitation to perform for the new Emperor in Rome.

Back in Rome, Emperor Commodus has quickly taken steps to control and weaken the Senate. Though his moves to gain power are bold and calculated, it is unclear if Commodus’ rule would actually be bad for Rome--as he explained to his father, ambition can be a virtue because it motivates action. Commodus begins by wooing the people with a festival of games--featuring gladiators, a spectacle banned in Rome by his father. Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) represents the more judicious Senators, who mistrust Commodus. Enter The Spaniard. Director Ridley Scott’s strong cast makes the intrigues, alliances, and betrayals of this film enthralling.

While Germania was blue-gray, Rome and Spain are golden. David Allday’s art direction deliberately moves from artful historical recreations to painterly vistas that look like moving murals. As with the opening battle, the gladiator sequences are perfectly choreographed and pass by at lightning speed. Pietro Scalia deftly edited these sequences, seamlessly blending models, digital effects, and various locales.

With Gladiator, Ridley Scott has again demonstrated his unique ability to create a riveting action film that also manages to be visually beautiful and emotionally compelling.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]