(directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)
And now for something completely different. I do like taking a break now and then to indulge myself with a spot of cheerful ranting. I wasn’t even sure whether to write a post on Pompeii or not. I don’t like being overly critical and that’s doubly the case when a film doesn’t even have the courage to be as wildly barking mad as Anonymous was; but is simply duff. In the end, however, I decided it was my duty to prevent anyone else wasting one-and-three-quarter hours of their life on this. (That’s the equivalent of half a Baroque opera, two episodes of Game of Thrones or almost four episodes of Blackadder. Judge wisely.)
There are many things wrong with Pompeii, which I shall enumerate with great glee in a moment, but the overall problem is that the director has taken one of the greatest natural disasters in history and decided that actually it would be much better with a few more explosions and a storyline which can only be described as plotting by numbers. Add in some hammy acting and an unfortunate case of miscasting, and the scene is set for an underwhelming two hours, culminating in a staggeringly sentimental ending.
Where to begin? You could be forgiven for assuming that Pompeii was a film of the book by Robert Harris. That’s certainly what I assumed until I saw the posters, where the presence of Kit Harington half-naked, carrying a sword, indicated that the action probably wasn’t going to focus on an aqueduct engineer. Personally, I’d have preferred it if it had. Instead the writers cheerfully depart from anything approaching Harris’s novel (assuming that was the original source) and give us a kind of hybrid of Gladiator and Titanic without the charm or power of either. Harington is our hero: a brooding gladiator who has made his name winning fights in Britannia, spurred on by fury at having seen his family murdered by the command of an evil Roman general. It is 79 AD and, in the ultimate example of wrong-place, wrong-time, he has been selected to make his Italian debut in a seaside resort near Naples. His name is Milo, but for anyone who (like me) has spent the last few years watching Game of Thrones, it is virtually impossible to think of him as anything other than Jon Snow. Milo comes from Northern Britain, sports an extremely familiar unkempt head of curls, and has a tendency to look serious and slightly pained.
Milo’s affinity with horses brings him into contact with the heroine Cassia (Emily Browning), a Roman maiden with a very 21st-century sensibility. She is, somewhat implausibly, travelling by carriage from Rome to Pompeii unescorted except for her slave and an old driver. This well-born girl then blithely hops out of her carriage when her horse keels over next to a column of manacled gladiators and other ne’er-do-wells. No one bats an eyelid when she hunkers down next to Milo, who’s trying to see if he can help her horse; and of course, it’s smouldering glances and love at first sight. But our star-crossed lovers barely have the chance to exchange a couple of meaningful glances before it transpires that Milo has a rival for Cassia’s love. The Senate has sent a representative to Pompeii to discuss Cassia’s father’s plans to gentrify the city after the recent catastrophic earthquake. This happens to be none other than the wicked Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who turns out to have designs on the virtuous Cassia. Also, by amazing coincidence, he just happens to be the evil general who presided over the slaughter of Milo’s entire tribe. (It’s remarkable how villains get around, isn’t it?)
And so we find ourselves with our hearts in our mouths as the story unfolds. Will Cassia be able to evade Corvus’ dastardly plans and find a way to get a moment alone with the brooding Milo? Will Milo be able to prove himself to his frankly unimpressed fellow gladiators in the amphitheatre? (One of them turns out to be the brother of someone Milo killed in Britain: again, incredible how these people get around.) And, most importantly, why does the camera keep focusing on that rather large mountain on the horizon?
It’s tosh. It really is. And the worst thing is that it isn’t even bad enough to be good: it has an underlying earnestness which just makes its lack of plausibility even more annoying. I can’t understand why, with such fantastic material, it wasn’t possible to make a more original and gripping film. Too many of the gladiatorial scenes seemed to be thinly-disguised adaptations from Gladiator (e.g. the historical recreation in the arena which goes ‘wrong’, as the plucky victims slaughter their attackers). The romance is unconvincing, blossoming from nothing to ‘my one true love’ in the course of a handful of admiring glances, and a rather ill-advised riding excursion. The improbably liberated heroine leaps onto a horse with our hero and they ride off for an evening together on the slopes of Vesuvius, even though she’s never actually been alone with him before, he’s a gladiator and quite frankly they have all the romantic chemistry of wet fish.
Browning is probably the most convincing of the lead actors, managing to convey Cassia’s intelligence and sensitivity despite the leaden script. As the predatory Corvus, Sutherland roams around chewing the scenery, looking disturbingly like Jack Bauer in a toga, and cursed with a depressingly one-dimensional character. Harington, on the other hand, is just miscast: he’s too small and slight to convince as a bullish gladiator who’s won every fight he’s been in; and his Milo spends far too much time looking emotionally tortured. Plus, since he looks and sounds the same as he does in Game of Thrones, it’s virtually impossible to shake off the feeling that at any minute someone will turn round and say ‘Winter is coming’ in an ominous tone of voice. All right; it’s not all bad. There was the odd impressive aerial shot of Pompeii and, if I remember correctly, the street plan and temples and so forth looked pretty close to what is actually there.
But the end. Oh God, the end. It was a rollercoaster of emotion, primarily because I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to cry at the fact that I’d never get back these two hours of my life. If you think you might like to see the film, then obviously I’d first strongly advise you to reconsider, but if you really can’t be moved, then stop right here, because there are spoilers ahead. I’m not talking about the erupting volcano, because really I think we all knew that was going to happen, and yet even that isn’t done very well. The director decides that the historical eruption wasn’t big enough and adds in rains of fire, random explosions and a massive tsunami (although I was grudgingly impressed by the trireme being swept along the main street from the port). And the characters’ reactions are just baffling. As the eruption rages, they spend far too much time getting involved in revenge battles, hunting each other down, or staring in despair as friends and loved ones die – rather than, like any rational person, trying to get the hell out.
So. What was that final scene all about? If you think you might actually care about any of this, you really won’t want to have this very special moment spoiled, so look away now. It was simply, magnificently bad. Milo, Cassia and their swift and unconvincing passion for one another are on the run. From a pyroclastic flow. I allowed myself to get happily wound up, berating them aloud: ‘What are you doing? You can’t outrun it! It’s travelling at 200 mph!’ But then the film pulls an absolute blinder. They don’t outrun it. For a moment I thought the film had redeemed itself. Such audacity, to incinerate your two protagonists in the final seconds! But then it segued into the final frame that was so saccharine, so mawkish, that I scarcely have words for it and was left spluttering in disbelief.
You could argue, of course, that a film could be regarded as worthwhile simply because it does elicit a strong emotional reaction. But there are limits, surely. I don’t quite feel that I can call Pompeii a brave effort, though an effort it certainly was, but ultimately it’s just another film that is trying (and failing) to out-Gladiator Gladiator. I’m consistently amazed at how difficult it seems to be to make a good film set in Classical antiquity of any shape or form; and yet, like the naive creature I am, I keep hoping…