Cleopatra (1963)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cleopatra</strong> (1963)

(On TV, January 2018) Some films are epic enough that they transcend time, and so Cleopatra remains even today a reference for excess in filmmaking. Long a yardstick for the most expensive movie ever produced, Cleopatra is still notable today for the lavishness of its super-production, whether it’s re-creating Cairo or Rome at the height of their power, putting hundreds of extras on-screen or giving more than sixty different costumes to its title character. And then there’s Elizabeth Tailor herself—while people of my generation mostly remember Taylor as an older woman of multiple marriages and excessive makeup, movies like Cleopatra firmly justify why she was a sex symbol for most of her career. Compelling even when the melodrama around her gets too thick to be taken seriously, Taylor is the film’s centrepiece and offers an unqualified reason to watch the film despite the nearly oppressive running time. Not that she’s the only reason: Seeing her play off future-husband Richard Burton is a great way to get into one of cinema history’s most remarkable romance and an insight in the frenzy that their affair created in mid-sixties pop culture and tabloid reporting. Spread the viewing over two evenings if you can—there’s an intermission and a somewhat different tone to the film’s two halves: the first half (Cleopatra and Julius Caesar) is better, but the second half (Cleopatra and Burton’s Mark Anthony) is more interesting. Cleopatra should have been much shorter, but there’s a lot of stuff shown on-screen, and more peak-era Taylor is never a bad thing.

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