Cleopatra (1999)
Artisan Entertainment
Cast: Timothy Dalton, Leonor Varela, Billy Zane
Extras: Production Notes, Hidden Treasures Game, Trailer

TV movies and mini series always have a problem standing out beside mega-budget Hollywood productions. Fortunately Hallmark Entertainment has become some sort of an authority in the field over recent years, delivering some surprisingly well produced films on occasion. "Cleopatra" is such an example. It is a three-hour mini series made for TV about the legendary queen of Egypt, the last Pharaoh of Egypt. As with most TV movies, I was a little hesitant to give this film a try, but Artisan’s slick presentation of this release got me intrigued.

"Cleopatra" tells the story of the rise and the fall of the queen of Egypt over her entire 22 year reign in lush pictures. The film starts when Cleopatra (Leonor Varela) is determined to ascend to the throne of Egypt that is rightfully hers, but disputed by her sister. She uses Julius Caesar (Timothy Dalton) to exercise his power over Egypt and proclaim her Queen. Quickly, the two fall in love and Caesar spends months in the serenity of Alexandria. Meanwhile in Rome the Senate is getting increasingly discontent with Caesar’s inactivity and his lack of political involvement in ruling the Empire. Powerful forces flare up who want to see Caesar disempowered. Upon hearing these disturbing news Caesar immediately sets out to Rome and leaves Cleopatra in Egypt where she bears his child, unbeknownst to him. Hopelessly in love with the Roman Emperor, Cleopatra hopes to get word from Caesar, or hear of his return, but nothing happens. When Caesar celebrates his newfound peace with Egypt, she travel to Rome and confronts him, and the rest of the empire with his child.

Politically weakened even further through the proclamation, a number of senators conspire to kill Julius Caesar and on the Ides of March he is stabbed to death in front of the Senate. Marc Anthony, his best friend, pledges revenge and over years he tracks down all murderers of the ruler, until only one conspirator is left. Octavius, the new Emperor of the Roman Empire. Marc Anthony and Cleopatra create a new alliance that angers Rome even more, and then Octavius declares war on Egypt and Marc Anthony! "Cleopatra" is a monumental story and the unbroken power of this enigmatic empress is impressive to this date, although history is not quite sure how exactly to categorize her actions. After over 2000 years it is hard to determine whether her actions were driven mostly by her personal ambitions or for the better of Egypt. The film pays remarkable attention to this detail by presenting us Cleopatra as a woman who combines both, political wit and foresight, as well as a strong personal will combined with rigorous self-confidence. She is never truly predictable and never flat, making her the most intriguing personality throughout the film.

The cast of this TV mini series is quite good, although certain parts appear overly stiff and Leonor Varela is not truly convincing as Cleopatra. Lost in the shadow of Elizabeth Taylor’s infamous incarnation of the character, and tugged between accomplished actors like Timothy Dalton and Billy Zane, her play is coming through weakly at best. Oftentimes wooden in her delivery, she doesn’t really manage to make the part her own, and I am not sure if the see-through quality of her entire wardrobe pays tribute to Cleopatra’s intellectual side.

Timothy Dalton’s resemblance to the statues and real bronze casts of Julius Caesar is remarkable, and so is his play. Albeit a ruler with an iron fist, we get to see the man behind the power, a man of principles and discipline who nonetheless knows when to let go. Dalton’s portrayal pays utter respect to one of history’s greatest and most famous rulers and adds immensely to the film’s entire appeal.

In great pictures this mini-series conjures up ancient Egypt. The production is colorful and the gorgeous cinematography adds greatly to the film’s general appeal. Mostly shot in the desert of Morocco, most of the sets give the film a big, if not monumental look, but sadly it is ever so often destroyed by wayward shots that reveal the true paper-maché nature of those sets. Especially the special effects shots in the film are very unfortunate and expose the film’s limited budget. None of the shots can live up to current standards and appear unintentionally comical at times. Fortunately most other production aspects distract from this downfall and let you forget about it rather quickly.

Artisan Home Entertainment has now released "Cleopatra" on DVD and the disc brings the film’s image quality to the screen in powerful colors. Well saturated and never over-emphasized, the colors and hues are beautiful to behold. The image display solid blacks and good, natural looking highlights that give the picture a well-balanced quality. Fleshtones are faithfully rendered under all conditions. The compression of the disc is also very well done without signs of artifacts or <$chroma,chroma noise>.

The release contains a <$DS,Dolby Surround> soundtrack that works well with the images we see. Never overly aggressive or obtrusive, the soundtrack builds a nice and highly ambient floor for the images to work upon. A solid musical score by Trevor Jones helps establishing the story and with its great use of motifs and themes helps to add credibility to the story. Dialogue is well mixed into the sound field and is always clear and understandable.

"Cleopatra" turns out to be a good TV production, but it could be substantially tightened up. This is the problem with most TV mini series, as they have to run for about three hours, and hardly any story requires to be covered in such large an amount of time. Most efforts loose focus on the essential parts of the story, as can be witnessed in countless other TV mini series. The film starts out very slow, but once the political rivalry in Rome gets going, "Cleopatra" serves up a good pace almost until the end. The film may not have the mystique of the real speculations surrounding Cleopatra, but it is an entertaining voyage into the past of Egypt. The DVD creates a vivid image and gives the film a glorious presentation, so check it out.