Troy (15)

Wooden horse, wooden acting, wouldn't bother if I were you

In Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris, Jack Palance plays a Hollywood producer presiding over a doomed screen adaptation of The Odyssey. Watching the rushes, Palance complains that the material won't work: "It's all very well," he thunders over footage of naked sirens cavorting in the waves, "but this stuff is art and the public just don't understand art." Wolfgang Petersen's Homeric epic Troy is different from Palance's in two respects. One, Petersen clearly believes that art is exactly what the public wants, and burdens his grand spectacle with a tone of leaden solemnity. And two, Petersen's skimpily-clad sirens are the men - Brad Pitt's moody muscleboy Achilles, and Orlando Bloom's earnest Paris, fragrant and fetching in a floaty, chest-baring blouse (but then, Paris is always lovely this time of year).

In Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris, Jack Palance plays a Hollywood producer presiding over a doomed screen adaptation of The Odyssey. Watching the rushes, Palance complains that the material won't work: "It's all very well," he thunders over footage of naked sirens cavorting in the waves, "but this stuff is art and the public just don't understand art." Wolfgang Petersen's Homeric epic Troy is different from Palance's in two respects. One, Petersen clearly believes that art is exactly what the public wants, and burdens his grand spectacle with a tone of leaden solemnity. And two, Petersen's skimpily-clad sirens are the men - Brad Pitt's moody muscleboy Achilles, and Orlando Bloom's earnest Paris, fragrant and fetching in a floaty, chest-baring blouse (but then, Paris is always lovely this time of year).

Above all, Troy - inspired by rather than strictly an adaptation of The Iliad - is a story of combat between strapping, hairy-legged men. Greek culture and all that, you'll say, but Troy is not remotely as homoerotic as it sounds - certainly not with the sense of fun that might imply. By the end, you'll know Brad's oiled flanks like the back of your hand, but Petersen simply wants to be authentically Hellenic, to sing with his camera the praises of heroes and their sinews. And of course, he knows where the box-office appeal lies.

This version of the Trojan war tries - in the way of the stolid Fifties Hollywood epics from which it's descended - to provide something for everyone. There are spectacular battle sequences; there's political drama, with Brian Cox's Agamemnon as the cynically manipulative tyrant using Helen's elopement as an excuse to attack Troy; and there's pallid romance between Helen and Trojan prince Paris, supplemented with raunchier tussles between Achilles and his captive Briseis (Rose Byrne), who succumbs to his rough embrace in a classical-age equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.

The main reason for resuscitating a fossilised genre is that computer imagery can create ever-grander vistas to overwhelm the eye: Troy makes Cecil B de Mille's follies look like chamber pieces. Petersen can raise the ramparts of Ilium and fill the screen with armies so multitudinous that it seems he's enlisted the entire population of Asia Minor. But as so often with digital firepower, a terrible literalness sets in. The line about "the face that launched a thousand ships" is echoed in Odysseus's (Sean Bean) wince-inducing announcement, "We're sending the largest fleet that ever sailed. A thousand ships," and then, lo, an armada as far as the eye can see, stretching out across the Aegean in what looks like a vast digital version of Cowes Week.

The film's most engaging insight is to have Achilles - a "gifted killer" who "can't be controlled", a Grecian lethal weapon, as it were - reflect Brad Pitt's own gilded status. In his feud with Agamemnon, Achilles comes across like a spoilt movie star sulking in his tent - read, his trailer. Further underlining the parallels between the Greek champions and their modern-day equivalent, his look - long blond hair, sarong-like skirt and designer boxing boots - have a distinct touch of Beckham. All this doesn't stop Pitt's Achilles coming across as petulant, wooden and boorish.

Removing the machinations of the gods, so central to The Iliad, may make the story more comprehensible today, but turning the Trojan war into a strictly human conflict levels the drama to an earthbound banality. The only divine here is Julie Christie as Achilles's sea-nymph mother, wading in the surf in ocean-blue tie-dyes. And because we never understand Achilles's semi-divine origins, we never quite understand his ability to conquer any enemy, notwithstanding his slo-mo leaps and swishing sword sound effects.

The real conflict in Petersen's story is less between Greeks and Trojans than between youth and grizzled age: we're asked to root for Pitt, Bloom and Eric Bana's moody, gimlet-eyed Hector against Agamemnon and Menelaus (Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson, resembling a pair of shaggy primeval buffalo). But in terms of performances, age wins hands down. Cox is a strikingly feral thug of a warlord, while Peter O'Toole's imperiously bouffanted Priam steals the show in a scene of wonderful pathos, throwing himself at Achilles's mercy. Rheumy-eyed and desiccated, he's about the most powerful, most human presence in sight.

The film's fatal dead spot, however, is Helen, played by Diane Kruger, a golden-shouldered German ex-model who doesn't rise above a blank gaze; beautiful, yes, but still you can't help thinking, "Is this the face...?" For both sex appeal and emotive power, she's far eclipsed by Rose Byrne's vibrant Briseis: expect to see more of this Australian actress.

As far as the dialogue goes, you can see the logic in writer David Benioff's eschewing of costume-drama fustian; his characters speak like moderns, but with a flatness that's often farcical. "You shouldn't be here," says Helen as Paris walks into her bedchamber. "That's what you said last night," he replies. There's far, far worse: if there's a script award in the Golden Raspberries, Benioff's is a shoo-in. But most damaging is the dogged insistence with which the script presses its main theme. This is a saga of a people obsessed with carving a place in history: "This war will never be forgotten... They will write stories about your victories for thousands of years." "They'll be talking about this war for a thousand years." And so on ad nauseam, as they say in the classics. The clunking irony is that a film which so harps on posterity will barely be remembered a year from now. In Troy, ancient Greek really is a dead language.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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