Dir. Ridley Scott
Oscars: Best Picture (Douglas Wick, David Franzoni, Branko Lustig); Best Actor (Russell Crowe); Best Costume Design (Janty Yates); Best Sound (Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, Ken Weston); Best Visual Effects (John Nelson, Neil Corbould, Tim Burke, Rob Harvey)
Other Nominees: Chocolat; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Erin Brockovich; Traffic
If a film is relatively critically unpopular at the time of its release, how stand its chances to hold up when rewatched a good 15 years after its release? Obviously Gladiator had its fans when it was released; it grossed $457M and earned scores of 76% and 64% on review aggregators Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. These are fairly low scores for a Best Picture winner, and they speak more to the film’s success as a popular work of moviemaking than as a benchmark in film history. Gladiator was the first film in over 50 years to win the Academy’s top prize without a corresponding win for its writer(s) or director. To put it simply, it was a popular film that rode its chariot of bravura to the podium.
I am sorry to report that the film has not aged well. There’s not much to the film, really, once the excesses of its (now sadly outdated) CGI and Roman-inspired design (I hesitate to call it “Roman” because I highly doubt this is what Ancient Rome looked like, but hey, I wasn’t there!). The acting is middling to fair, and the screenplay is barely serviceable. Clearly the text had many variations – a popular tale from the film’s production recalls Crowe refusing to perform scenes until he had adjusted the dialogue to his satisfaction – and the writing team barely managed to squeak a narrative arc out of their troubles. The film veers off in a new direction every twenty minutes: first the film stresses the importance of a unified Europe (for the barbarians’ own good, mind you), then opines the miseries of slavery, then celebrates physical strength as a defining character trait, then turns revenge tragedy, then warns of the dangers of incest and inbreeding, then sputters out as a thriller. There’s also a brief segue into fair governance and the debate between federal and localized powers.
I’ve got to credit Scott for his use of CGI to support his story. Often in films such as Gladiator, the graphics can overwhelm, but not here, where they exist only to create his canvas. Of course, the imagery in question is now outdated and at some points is cringe inducing, but Scott was playing with the hand he was dealt and he does so wonderfully. Unfortunately, that’s the only compliment that I can give to the film, which is overlong, pandering, and emotionally vapid. It is hard to feel for a man who has lost his family and seeks to revenge their killings when he is romancing another woman throughout. I can’t blame him, though, because Connie Nielsen is werking that toga.
Gladiator is to dramatic structure as George W. Bush is to the English language: it doesn’t do it well. The same goes for intrigue, character, metaphor, subtlety, or anything else that might make a story compelling. The film’s acting is similarly bland. Connie Nielsen gives us nothing as Lucilla, Oliver Reed’s acting swansong is flat with no rhythm, and Joaquin Phoenix is utterly painful as the antagonist, Commodus. He is so bad. It’s actually a little heartbreaking to watch: he is a great actor who recently has been giving us excellent performance after excellent performance (Walk the Line, The Master, or my personal favorite, Her, in which he is stellar) and here he flounders pitifully with a bad screenplay and little direction. In one scene he is forced to say, “It vexes me. I am terribly vexed.” Hun, you’re not alone.
Crowe, on the other hand, barely seems to be acting at all, only squinting, which is fair given the number of scenes he needs to play on a scorching desert / arena / sandy pit / field of wheat / other locations where squinting is appropriate. The only member of the cast who actually acts is poor Derek Jacobi in a thankless role, which brings me to my oft-delayed conclusion: don’t rewatch Gladiator. Revisit I, Claudius instead.