Look, there’s something I have to get off my chest right here up front, pretty much the first thing that I thought when I finished watching Gladiator for the first time – these reviews are supposed to be the raw, unedited truth of our hot takes, and I simply wouldn’t feel right not sharing this one with you.
I think perhaps the most significant thing that I have to say about this film is this: thank God that it didn’t come out in 2010 or later, because, if it had, Joaquin Phoenix’s Commidus would have become the new Onceler before the credits had started to roll on the first preview screening. An evil, emotional, funny-looking young-ish male villain? Tumblr would never have let us forget it.
But anyway. More significantly, I actually think Gladiator is an excellent film. It’s one that I’ve avoided for a long time out of just general apathy – it’s long, it’s directed by the intensley patchy Ridley Scott, starring the intensley patchy Russel Crowe. Eventually, it was the lure of a great Phoenix performance (though, aren’t they all, these days?) that got me through the cinematic door – and yes, Commidus is probably the most impressive achievement that Gladiator has to offer. Scary, pathetic, compellingly watchable, it’s just another great performance from one of this generation’s greatest actors to put in the book.
But I knew that he was going to sell it – it’s everything else that took me by surprise. Russel Crowe (though I am an apologist for Crowe-as-Javert in Les Miserables) is an actor who only intermittently tries, and I didn’t know what version of him to expect – okay, Maximus is not the most complex character in film history, but Crowe actually finds some nuance in the role, especially when he’s sharing the screen with an excellent Connie Nielsen (and providing us some proto-DC-cinematic universe crossover between Wonder Woman’s mum and Superman’s dad). A prestige cast surrounding him really helps – the late and somewhat lamented Oliver Reed enunciates his way into cinematic history with an instantly compelling presence that elevates the movie every moment he’s on screen, while Richard Harris and Derek Jacobi (working that I, Claudius street cred) fill out a fabulous supporting cast.
When it comes to big emotional moments, the film has only one move, and that’s for the actors to get veryveryclose to the face of whoever they’re emoting at – it happens at least half a dozen times in the movie, with every combination you can imagine – but hey, if it ain’t broke, right? In fact, I think even this slightly silly go-to move kind of works for the tone that the film is trying to set – it’s an epic, and everything about it feels as though it’s functioning on an epic scale. The battle scenes, the dialogue, the stakes, the silliness – it’s not pretending to be anything other than what it is, an enormous, sweeping historical piece that takes on most of Europe and every piece of Ancient Roman iconography that you’ve ever seen in a Horrible Histories book (and hopes that you ignore the numerous anachronisms and straight-up fantasy armour that some of the gladiators are wearing).
And visually, that sense of scale is something that this movie really makes work for it. A mix of miniatures and special effects, as well as some beautiful on-location backgrounds in Fort Ricasoli in Malta, come together to capture the sheer enormity of the Roman Empire that the film is trying to convey. We’ve really got to believe that we’re just seeing the figureheads of an enormous world, and I think Gladiator pulls that off – those first shots of the Colosseum are still truly dazzling cinematic moments, and it’s hard not to get caught up in just how well Scott and his production crew have constructed this (historically inaccurate, basically, but still) world that feels so rich and so full.
Gladiator is a fabulous piece of blockbustery entertainment – giant, sweeping, and ambitious, it matches its sense of scale at every turn, with huge performances and huge stakes to match. Just try not to think too hard about the anachronisms, and you’ll be just fine.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Hollywood Reporter)