Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, from 1963, has a terrible reputation, and it’s richly deserved. It suffers primarily from the sin of good taste — from creatives choices meant to avoid excessive vulgarity, to suggest sophistication and intellect. God forbid! These are the last virtues one wants from an historical sword-and-toga epic. The Egyptian and Land Of the Pharaohs, stupendously vulgar movies, seem like great works of art compared to the vapid modesty of Cleopatra.
Mankiewicz was a decent writer but a stodgy director, good with actors but cinematically boring. He was the worst sort of director to assign to a troubled production like Cleopatra, which needed the steady hand of a studio veteran but also some style, some visual élan.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were apparently having a lot of fun off-screen during the shooting of Cleopatra, but don’t seem to have had any at all while the cameras were rolling. In the film, the chemistry between them is non-existent.
The narrative is plodding, the dialogue is stuffy, the performances are, for the most part, perfunctory — although all of the principal players have their moments. The production values dazzle in the new Blu-ray edition, and they are enough to make the film entertaining, well worth a look — compelling the way a spectacular train wreck is compelling, although sadly this train wreck unfolds in excruciatingly slow motion.
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