Written by: Ronni Kern
Directed by: John Kent Harrison
Starring: Sienna Guillory, Matthew Marsden, John Rhys-Davies, Rufus Sewell, and Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd
- Making-of featurette
Released by: Universal
My Advice: Rent it.
NOTE: This film contains scenes of sexual assault, including one particularly disturbing and overly long rape scene.
Attempting to tell an epic as famous and old as this takes guts, if not rampant stupidity, but the producers and creative team behind the recent TV mini-series Helen of Troy manage to pull it off, with only a little too much gratuitous nipplage. The story itself bears little repeating here, and the writers add much to the basics: Aphrodite (Emily Kosloski) promises the most beautiful woman in the world to Paris (Marsden), but alas, Helen (Guillory) is already married to Menelaus (James Callis), brother of Agamemnon (Sewell). When she escapes to Troy with Paris, Menelaus (who for some reason needs help, even though as King of bloody Sparta, he shouldn’t) rallies the kings of Greece to attack Troy. We also, however, get to see some of the other important bits of the story that are often overlooked by storytellers, such as the sacrifice of Iphigenia (Kristina Paris), and the favorite parts, like crafty Odysseus (Nigel Whitmey).
[ad#longpost]The actors do a good job overall, especially in breathing life into characters that are so well-known and iconic. For example, Sienna Guillory brings a spirit and wit to Helen that is often not granted to the character in other versions that instead make her more of an insipid milksop or just a wretched, faithless woman. In this version, Theseus (SkarsgÃ¥rd) is made into a villain of sorts who kidnaps young Helen to make her his bride, but SkarsgÃ¥rd turns him into a likable, even affable, but still strong, man. Rufus Sewell, who desperately needs to play a good guy again at some point, is a marvelous Agamemnon–dastardly, but never one-dimensional; in fact, in some places, he’s almost too good, as his part calls for him to do villainous acts that would be beyond the limits of some actors. Calchas, Agamemnon’s seer, is also wonderfully played by Mat Fraser, and of course John Rhys-Davies is always marvelous.
Classicists will be wanting to know what changes were made to the classic tale of Troy and the War–as always, some of the changes seem minor, and others seem more major. One of the most obvious and seemingly unnecessary changes was that Paris as an infant is ordered killed by Priam, upon hearing Cassandra’s prophecy that if he lives, “Troy will burn.” Adopted by a Trojan shepherd who finds the crying infant, however, Paris grows to adulthood and fulfills his “destiny.” Another point is that Helen is not really so much the focus of the war, but the excuse, to answer Agamemnon’s greed and lust for power. The most annoying change to me personally is the writing of Cassandra as rather a villain, desperate to kill Paris to save Troy; though as in most Greek tragedies, attempting to avert the prophecy leads to its completion. Other changes seemed to have been added to flesh out the story. Mentioning other changes would reveal me as the prudish academic I am and make it seem that I don’t appreciate a good yarn, which this show truly is. Besides, if it can inspire viewers to an interest in the great civilizations of Sparta, Mycenae, and Thebes, or just in archaeology in general, then more power to it.
The features list is easy enough to relate: a making of featurette called “Helen of Troy: Making the Epic.” At a little less than half an hour, it’s brief, but is an interesting enough look at how the special effects and script came together. Excellent choices for extras would have been a PDF file of The Iliad and the relevant plays, archeological reports and specials about the finding of Troy, and interviews with classicists, who would have been all too happy to talk about Greece, Greek literature, and the Hellenic world. Even a map of the classical world would have been nice. Of course the usual additions, that don’t even cost much extra, would be such things as bloopers or a copy of the script.
CGI does a marvelous job of rebuilding the Hellenistic world, from the legendary walls of Troy to the chitons of the women of Sparta. The sound is nicely balanced between sound effects, such as arrows leaving bows and the soundtrack, with speech being too soft in only a few places.
All in all, Helen of Troy is better than it has any business being, though there were a few sensationalistic directorial choices that are problematic. Academics may want to hate it just for the sheer audacity of putting Homer on the screen, but really, it’s just plain entertaining. Given the divine nature of Helen’s birth and the divine intervention in Paris’ life, this is the way things could have been, if Homer’s version is not ascendant. After all, what good myth has only one version, even if only the details vary?