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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Cox (not the astronomer)’

A family agree to participate in a new TV series, in which they get the kind of lifestyle they have always dreamed of, on condition that their every moment is broadcast in real time to  a vast and eager audience. However, what they do not realise is that the producers of the programme, believing that ‘something’s got to happen’ have secretly introduced a violent psychopath into the proceedings. The consequences are horrific, but the viewing figures go through the roof.

By modern standards this is not a terribly original scenario for a film or TV series: it’s not a million miles away from the premise of Halloween: Resurrection, for one thing. Reality TV with added horror and death has gone beyond a trope to become an actual cliche – and it’s not even as if reality TV itself is a particularly worthwhile subject for satire. Millions still watch programmes like The X Factor and Big Brother, but surely no-one actually takes them seriously any more. The most extravagant examples of the form do a good job of satirising themselves, anyway.

yoso

Of course – I say of course – the plot outline at the top of the page is that of The Year of the Sex Olympics, one of the two or three pieces of writing that are the cornerstones of Nigel Kneale’s reputation. As a satire of modern TV it is effective enough, but what makes it such an extraordinary piece of work for the modern viewer is that it was written 45 years ago.

All culture dates, just at different speeds. Once a few years have passed it’s almost impossible to recapture the original impact that a film or a TV show had when they first appeared: special effects progress, innovative plots become formulaic cliches, standards of audience credulity shift. All of these are true of The Year of the Sex Olympics, but what makes it especially difficult to judge this drama effectively is the sheer impact it seems to have had at the time – it has penetrated deep into the culture, to the point where it was one of the touchstones used by any serious commentator talking about the advent of actual reality TV around the turn of the century. You could seriously argue that this is one of the foundation texts of modern TV culture.

There’s always been debate as to whether serious SF genuinely attempts to predict the future, or simply comments on the present. Most of the predictions it does make turn out to be technological, and most of those turn out to be wrong. The Year of the Sex Olympics, on the other hand, has proven to be a startlingly accurate cultural prediction of the way TV has gone – the question is, was it intended as such by Kneale? Was he simply making a satire, based on his own experiences as a TV scriptwriter?

I find it hard to say. What is striking, and little commented upon compared to the play’s success as a piece of prophecy, is how closely it ties in to Kneale’s own past body of work. He rose to prominence, after all, for adapting Orwell’s 1984 for the BBC in the early 50s, and Sex Olympics owes a huge debt to Orwell’s vision. From Orwell’s telescreen to Kneale’s telly screen is not a great distance, while the play explicitly refers to Orwellian ideas of language simplification and the intellectual limitations resulting from it. In both works there is the idea of the tiny elite ruling a vast, inert population – the Party in Orwell, the TV executives in Kneale.

Of course, it would be a mistake to suggest that The Year of the Sex Olympics is purely an updating of 1984 for the TV era. It also draws significantly upon Huxley’s Brave New World, with its pacifying drugs freely available to all and its emphasis on stability achieved through sensory gratification. Huxley’s ‘feelies’ also, perhaps, contributed to the idea of a society where the bulk of the population only experience life vicariously.

Certainly the play looks and feels more like Huxley than Orwell – another way in which the original sense of this play has been lost to us is in the fact that the original colour recordings have been erased, leaving only a black and white copy. The few colour stills which have survived suggest the world of sensory overload in which the hi-drive caste live.

Inevitably, the paisley togas and peculiar hairstyles of most of the hi-drives are one of the things which superficially date Sex Olympics very badly, and it’s not as if the realisation of the script is absolutely flawless, either. Tony Vogel as the protagonist is a bit too boggle-eyed and manic to be entirely sympathetic, while anyone who routinely criticises Dick van Dyke’s attempt at an English accent should listen to Brian Cox’s go at an American one here (obviously he has improved since). On the other hand, Suzanne Neve is just right as Vogel’s partner, and Leonard Rossiter is particularly good in a difficult part as the man who authorises the ‘Live-Life’ show without realising the consequences of his actions.

But most of the things you would instinctively criticise Sex Olympics for – the way the plot feels slightly hackneyed, the manner in which the satire feels slightly obvious – are simply the result of the way this play has been assimilated, consciously or not, into the wider culture. It’s not trading in cliches but originating them, and if the satire feels obvious, that’s because it’s satirising things that weren’t to come into being for another 30 years. And even by today’s standards, the closing scenes of the play still have considerable power to move, disturb, and shock. By any standards it remains a remarkable piece of work.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that, whatever undertaking you are engaged in, it can only be improved by the judicious addition of some Peter Cushing. I don’t really feel I’ve written about this magnificent, iconic actor nearly enough here on the blog, and with the centenary of his birth only a few days away this feels like the ideal moment to rectify that.

While Peter Cushing did much of his most memorable work away from Hammer (and I’m thinking here of 1984, the Doctor Who movies, Star Wars, and so on), it’s impossible to argue with the notion that he’s one of the performers most closely linked with the studio. So we will be looking at some Hammer over the course of the next few posts. I don’t currently have to hand a copy of The Curse of Frankenstein, Cushing’s first work with Hammer Films, and so instead I thought we would take a look at his final role in association with the company.

This is in The Silent Scream, an episode of Hammer House of Horror from 1980. By this point Hammer had basically packed up as a maker of theatrical movies and were trying to break into TV, in association with ITC. House of Horror is an anthology show, made entirely on film, and with some surprisingly big names appearing (usually either very early or late in their careers). As is fairly standard with anthology series, the quality of the episodes varies wildly, but The Silent Scream (directed by Alan Gibson, written by Francis Essex) is towards the top of the pile.

silentscream

By this time in the final, post-Tarkin phase of his career, Peter Cushing is top-billed, but the main character is Chuck, played by a considerably pre-stardom Brian Cox (actor not physicist). As the story opens, Chuck has just got out of prison, much to the delight of his lovely wife (Elaine Donnelly). The first scene when he gets home is a masterclass in how to bombard the audience with exposition without them noticing: they live in a remote house miles from anyone else (they have no phone). They are very short of cash. Chuck is a kleptomaniac safecracker with a pathological fear of confinement. He has struck up a friendship with a prison visitor who runs the local pet shop. His wife is clearly much too good for him. All of these things except the last one turn out to be crucial plot points, yet you never quite get the sense of the script hitting you over the head with them: this stuff is hardly Shakespeare, but professionally done nevertheless.

Anyway, Chuck trots off to the pet shop to say thank you to the prison visitor, Mr Blucek (Cushing). Cushing opts to play the part with a faint German accent, which suits the character, and a trilby, which is a more questionable choice. Nevertheless he goes into Polite and Genial with an Undeniable Hint of Obscure Menace mode, which indicates to the audience that things may be about to go badly for Chuck.

It’s not really surprising that Chuck spends a lot of time in prison, as he is clearly a dim bulb, not putting two and two together when Blucek reveals his hobby, which is conditioning animals so they can be safely contained without conventional cages. Even the fact that there is a menagerie out the back of the shop containing lions, leopards, kangaroos and bears does not prompt Chuck to realise there is something very odd going on here.

Well, needless to say, Mr Blucek is intent upon the final phase of his experiments in conditioning, which involves training a human to accept confinement. This involves the use of lots of sound cues – buzzers and bells and so on – and high-voltage electrical force fields. Presumably Blucek has all this stuff lying around from his former life as a Nazi war criminal, as I don’t think it’s standard pet shop issue. Soon enough Chuck finds himself back in a cell and at Blucek’s mercy, while his missus runs around producing a little mild padding for the episode.

Actually, I’m being too harsh: for an episode of a horror anthology series, The Silent Scream works really hard to stay borderline-plausible, despite the daftness of the central premise. When Chuck first goes missing, his wife goes round to the pet shop to see what’s happened to him. Blucek denies all knowledge, but Chuck’s coat is hanging up where she can see it. At this point I was getting ready to shout ‘Go to the police, you stupid woman!’ only for the next scene to open with her… well, going to the police. (Who still don’t do anything.)

This is the kind of show they just don’t make any more – the pre-credits sequence concludes with an electrocuted tiger, and later on there’s a scene with an exploding puppy, which scores points for sheer ballsiness – it probably loses them straight away for unintentional humour, but you can’t have everything. If we’re perfectly honest, Brian Cox only really gives a workmanlike performance as Chuck, but Elaine Donnelly is very good, and Peter Cushing, as usual, commits completely to his role, investing Blucek with a slightly detached icy malevolence that commands the screen whenever he appears.

Despite all this, I have to say that The Silent Scream is never really more than okay, although the reasons for this are initially hard to pin down. I think it’s partly because none of the characters is really very likeable – Donnelly is the one who comes closest, but you have to wonder what she sees in Cox. Also, as a horror story it’s just not that frightening – it’s hard to make a man stuck in a room seem properly scary. If most of the episode was a two-hander between Cox and Cushing, set in the cell, it might have worked better, but we keep cutting away to the wife running about. There’s a half-decent blackly ironic twist ending, but even this is implicitly nasty rather than genuinely scary. Still, as I say, this is one of the better episodes of the series and a good showcase for Cushing’s talents: this man could make the magic work on TV as easily as in a movie.

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All hail to Ralph, lord of the house of Fiennes

Respected well both here and o’er the pond

An Oscar did he get for Schindler’s List

He’s also the new boss man of James Bond.

Director now bold Ralphie has become –

A thing’s more worth the doing if it’s hard! –

A complex tale his debut offering:

He’s giving us his vision of the Bard.

No well-known play he’s gone for, no sirree

But obscure Roman saga, Coriolanus

And old Will Shakespeare’s versing’s kept intact

Which must have been a right pain in the neck.

So hence my tribute in this verse that’s blank

The key thing to it (and this I must stress)

Is in the correct placement of the stre… er, beats

At least irregular rhyming is allowed.

(Although this conceit’s wearing rather thin –

I think the time has come to pack it in.)

Oh, be quiet: it’s not like you’re having to pay for this, is it? Yes, it’s the new adaptation of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph ‘Little Sunbeam’ Fiennes. (Rather mind-bogglingly, the script is credited to one John Logan, although some Shakespeare guy gets an ‘original material’ nod.) Now, I know this will come as a shock to regular readers, but there are limits to my erudition and this is not one of the plays with which I am terribly familiar. As a result I recruited an expert in literature to accompany me to the cinema, although the fact that his first words of wisdom on the play were ‘It’s a bit like 300‘ led me to worry I wasn’t paying enough attention when it came to the ancillary staff situation. Hey ho.

Fiennesy plays Caius Martius, respected and feared general in the service of the Roman Republic. The Volscians, old enemies of Rome, are playing up under the command of their military leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler – hey, what do you know! He was right!). The Romans come off better in the clash, though the personal feud of the two generals is unresolved.

On his return to Rome, he is gifted with the honorary name Coriolanus and, as is customary and expected (we’ll come back to this), proceeds towards the distinguished position of Consul, a source of much pride to his frankly scary mother (Vanessa Redgrave). However, while a brilliant soldier, Coriolanus is fatally lacking in the common touch and any kind of political sensitivity. His domestic enemies find it very easy to turn the population against him, with dire consequences for both countries and individuals…

Of necessity, any outline of Shakespeare’s plot wholly omits exactly how Fiennes chooses to present it. This is by far the most striking thing about it – rather in the same way that Ian McKellen’s Richard III movie took place in a 1930s Europe falling under the sway of Fascism, so Fiennes’ Coriolanus is contextualised in a world like the Balkans of the early 90s: bloody, senseless fighting; APCs rolling through bleak European cities; murky, self-interested politicking. This seems entirely appropriate for a film which takes as its theme the chaos which ensues when war and politics intersect.

That said, the text has a wider focus to it, and one which may possibly surprise people with only a passing familiarity with Shakespeare. This is a startlingly cynical film – the patrician class are scourged for their contempt and disdain for the wider population, but the public themselves are implicitly depicted as foolish sheep for allowing themselves to be so easily manipulated. Hardly any of the characters are presented in a remotely positive light, with the possible exception of Menenius (Brian Cox), one of Coriolanus’ political allies.

Cox, Fiennes, and Butler are just the most prominent members of an extremely strong cast, which also includes Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, Jon Snow, and, most prominently, Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mum. Redgrave in particular is electrifying as a domineering, deeply controlling woman who is clearly the source of all that is both good and bad in her son’s character. Fiennes himself gives a striking central turn – he’s terrifying as Coriolanus the soldier, then chilling later on as the man falls from grace. That said, I don’t feel he ever quite gets to the heart of the character in terms of his pride and arrogance – Coriolanus the politician just comes across as awkward and a bit distant, rather than someone temperamentally unsuited to this course.

Another problem with the film is that, inevitably, the scissors have come out and much material has been excised (though my literary consultant distinctly muttered ‘I don’t remember that bit in the text’ at one point). Amongst the stuff that’s gone, alas, is whatever explanation is given for Coriolanus’s decision to become Consul. He seems fundamentally unsuited to the job and doesn’t actually seem to want it, so why’s he bothering? Is it just the done Roman thing? Is he being pushed into it by his mum? It’s central to the plot, so we really need to know why it’s happening.

Oh well – in many ways this is a very impressive film, and one that really works as a film in its own right most of the way through (although, one climactic scene has rather too much of a whiff of the Stratford stage about it in the way it’s staged). The acting is fantastic, the story is about as easy to follow as obscure Shakespeare play movie adaptations get (hmm, mayhaps damning with faint praise there), and it’s visually very interesting. If it doesn’t offer any easy answers to the questions it raises about what happens when the boundaries between soldiers and politicians blur, that’s perhaps because it would be fatuous to do so. I can’t honestly believe Coriolanus will wholeheartedly convert anyone going to see it with no prior knowledge of the play, but people with a better education than mine will probably find it a very rewarding experience.

There once was a soldier named Caius,

Lambasted for anti-prole bias.

When kicked out of town

He said with a frown

‘I suppose this stuff’s just sent to try us.’

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 19th 2004:

Now, readers with long trousers and short shrift may recall that I was not particularly impressed with Doug Liman’s 2002 thriller The Bourne Identity. It had some things going for it but I felt that on the whole it was bit bland, and badly lacking in the lead performance department. As usual, everyone else in the world disagreed and the startling box office Bourne Identity racked up made a sequel virtually inevitable. And here it is: The Bourne Supremacy, directed by Paul Greengrass.

At the start of the movie, we find our favourite amnesiac hitman/youth hosteller Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in Goa with his main squeeze Marie (the bodacious Franka Potente), doing his best to remember who he is, all the while avoiding his former CIA employers and anyone else who might have a gripe about his former lifestyle.

Sadly all this comes to an end when Bad Guys frame Bourne for the murder of two men in Berlin, and send another, equally grumpy hitman (Karl Urban from Lord of the Rings – if I had a fiver for every time I’ve typed those last five words this summer…) to settle his hash. I hope I’m not spoiling this film for anyone when I reveal that Bourne does not get topped fifteen minutes in, but instead sets out to discover who it is that’s got it in for him, and exact a suitable vengeance upon them…

Everyone is likening the burgeoning Bourne franchise to the Bond phenomenon, which I suppose is understandable given that the Bond films have come to epitomise mainstream action movie-making, and both series are about spies. But the two really have very little in common, and I suppose the success of Bourne is because it does do something different with the genre. The Bourne Supremacy is in no way a conventional studio thriller: it’s dour, and naturalistic, and the plot is ferociously convoluted – I can speak only for myself, but I had to pay attention in order to keep track of who was double-crossing who and why. Bourne (played impressively well by Damon) is a sombre, grim figure, who barely speaks for most of the movie, let alone quips his way through action set-pieces. You feel a certain amount of sympathy for him, but you certainly wouldn’t want to be him.

This realism colours the entire movie: having seen it I’m pretty sure I could now track someone across Europe, avoiding police all the while, find out which hotel they were staying in, and sneak into their room and liquidate them with a rolled-up magazine and a toaster. Director Greengrass coats the whole thing in a patina of authenticity that’s very beguiling. That element of the movie which isn’t concerned with Bourne’s latest jaunt is mostly to do with internal CIA politics, as Bourne is hunted by Joan Allen’s senior agent, variously helped and hindered by Brian Cox and Julia Stiles (Cox and Stiles were apparently in the first one, not that I remember them at all). The performances here are equally solid and the storytelling assured: this is where most of the plot takes place, so that’s just as well.

But it’s not all wordiness, tradecraft and depression: one element of the original movie that really did impress me was its action sequences, and Supremacy surpasses it here too. Damon is extremely convincing in his fight sequences and Greengrass puts together an astonishingly good car chase for a man who started his career on the TV news show World in Action. There aren’t many sequences like this, but there are just enough to keep the movie going and they’re all executed pretty much flawlessly.

There’s barely a single joke in The Bourne Supremacy, it’s not an especially sunny or cheerful film, and the ending leaves all sorts of questions hanging in the breeze. And, to be honest, I’m really not sure if this kind of tone and style can be sustained over more than a couple of movies without it all getting terribly repetitive. But this is great stuff, one of the best movies of the summer: intelligent, focussed, and engrossing. Recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 8th 2003: 

Well, it looks like summer is nearly upon us, bringing with it a virtual cavalcade of sequels and superheroes (many with the letter X in their titles). The first of these is, of course, Bryan Singer’s X2 – the sequel to 2000’s X-Men. Superhero sequels actually have a pretty good strike rate (I’m thinking here of the second installments of Superman, Batman and Blade, for starters [I don’t know what the hell I was thinking of vis-a-vis Batman Returns. Sorry – A]), so surely this one isn’t going to be a let down… Certainly they’ve retained the same impressive cast: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still the one with the adamantium claws, skeleton, and quiff, Magneto (Gandalf) is still the mutant master of magnetism, Professor X (Patrick Stewart, taking the weight off) is the one whose superpowers are the least drain on the budget, and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is still the one with the X-Man codename that the scriptwriters are too embarrassed to use…

Following on reasonably closely from the events of the first film, X2 opens with an attempt on the US President’s life by the imp-like teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a sequence which plays rather like The West Wing on acid. Army scientist Stryker (Brian Cox) uses this as an excuse to crack down on mutant activity, particularly the Xavier School – an institution he has a special and sinister interest in. Meanwhile, still on the scene are Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who have an agenda of their own…

Possibly due to the bigger budget, this is a slightly different film to the first one: where that essentially had a political subtext, this one is more personally and emotionally based. And, for most of the film, the results are spectacularly impressive, as the story alternates between impressive effects sequences and involving personal revelations to utterly engrossing effect.

I have never hidden the fact that I’m a comics fan, and so my approach to a film like this is inevitably slightly different to that of a purely cinematic feature like, ooh, Terminator 3. Most of the niggling gripes I had with the first film are answered, one way or another – this time round there’s a lot more action and many more X-Men on display, as Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) get beefed-up roles and characters like Colossus, Jubilee, Beast, Shadowcat, and Karma all get cameos or namechecks of various significance. Having said that, Cyclops (James Marsden) is – very nearly unforgivably, given he’s a lynchpin of the comic – reduced to not much more than a supporting character, and there’s still no sign of the Danger Room.

But on its own terms as a film, X2 is highly impressive in nearly every respect. There’s a hugely charismatic performance from Jackman, a funny and sympathetic one from Cumming, and another world-class display of scene-stealing from Ian McKellen – he’s helped a lot by the fact that he gets, in his jail-break, arguably the best set-piece of the film. However, what keeps this from transcending X-Men in every single department is the climax. Where, the first time round, it was concise and simple and pacy, this time round it seems to take up about a quarter of the film’s running time, with half-a-dozen different plot threads and a succession of fights, crises, reversals and revelations. One of these is not only unnecessary and half-baked, but also a wholly underwhelming appropriation of the Dark Phoenix storyline (one of the most famous and best-loved stories from the comic), and thus promises to irk both the hard-core fans and normal people. The result is that the film loses momentum towards the end, which is a real disappointment – but at least it does provide genuine closure in place of a cliffhanger.

Given some of the groundbreaking pyrotechnics we’re promised later this summer (most obviously by the Wachowskis and Ang Lee) it would have been easy for X2 to slip back to being a blockbuster of the second rank. For all that it has its flaws and disappointments, this is an extremely impressive example of the genre, and entertaining from start to finish. Perhaps not the masterpiece that some people were anticipating, but by no means a disappointment: not a truly great movie, but great fun to watch.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 20th 2004. 

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 (Diane 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 – sigh). 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.

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