As ambitious as it is, USA’s “Helen of Troy” is personality-free folklore, a stiff portrait of mythology that hides within the comfort zones of elaborate costuming, special effects and accents. Somber and stifled in places that call for more user-friendly storytelling, mini’s dialogue is full of deep-voiced, toga-clad leaders bellowing from their thrones about loyalty and revenge. To be sure, that’s what viewers expect from their sword-and-sandal epics, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of overall flavor. Standing out is Sienna Guillory as the title character and Rufus Sewell as Agamemnon, the only thesps who exhibit any sort of range. He’s a man who transforms slowly from mere immorality to madness, and she plays the face that launched a thousand ships as a flaky emotional wreck.
Director John Kent Harrison and scribe Ronni Kern only halfway take advantage of the spicy elements that make these legends so tasty. While affairs, murder and war are front-and-center, turning Sparta and its neighboring townships into one big circus where emperors daily hold gladiator battles, women tempt men nightly, everybody cavorts and nobody works, the drama never rises above overbaked theatrics.
Mini’s primary focus is the relationship between Helen and Paris (Matthew Marsden). He’s a hero who was left to die as an infant (nee Alexandros) on a mountain top in 1238 B.C. after his prophecy-spouting sister, Cassandra (Emilia Fox), told father King Priam (John Rhys-Davies) and mother Queen Hecuba (Maryam D’Abo) that his birth would bring nothing but catastrophe to Troy.
Found by a shepherd, Paris is raised a strong, sensible teen who catches Helen’s eye. Knowing they will somehow end up together, Helen returns home to attend the wedding of her sister, Clytemnestra (Katie Blake), to Agamemnon (Sewell), a ruthless snake who has a strange hold over weaker brother Menelaus (James Callis).
After he triumphs in a series of hand-to-hand fights staged for entertainment, Paris eventually is recognized by Priam and Hecuba and is quickly brought back into the family fold as if no time has passed. Back in Sparta, several sovereigns, including Achilles (Joe Montana) and Odysseus (Nigel Whitmey), take an oath to defend each other no matter who ends up with the beautiful but bad-luck-inducing Helen after she’s rescued from a thief/kidnapper named Theseus (Stellan Skarsgard). The sovereigns decree that Helen exists only to cause men heartache and create conflict, so they cast lots to determine who among them will wed her, with Menelaus winning her hand.
Ultimately, it’s the brothers’ loosening bond that portends the destruction of Troy. While Helen runs off with Paris and obtains unofficial citizenship within the city’s confines thanks to the kindness of Priam, Agamemnon and Menelaus plan a scheme that kicks off a 10-year stakeout capped by the famed giant horse left behind to serve as an entry for the Aegeans who kill Troy’s royalty and seize the metropolis.
“Helen of Troy” is a mixed production bag. Filmed in Malta, the sets and locales aren’t used to their full potential; almost nonexistent are the splendorous backdrops and widescreen beauty that viewers have come to expect thanks to “Gladiator.” Phoniest of all, however, are the “boxing” matches’ ringside cheerers; like an army of extras who were told to shout without any sense of nuance, all of the scenes crafted to showcase the power and fury of animal instincts — and there are many — look like badly edited sequences from any number of B movies.
On the flip side, Harrison uses some nifty moves to differentiate the product from so many attempts at re-creating the eras. Notably, handheld cameras are utilized to get close and personal, conveying urgency in scenes that otherwise might have been lensed in a more undistinguished way. Harrison also uses “Matrix”-like stop-shutter techniques that would seem out of place but somehow work here to highlight combat sequences, often with stirring visuals.
Perf-wise, Guillory reps the overall highlight; she takes center stage among a group of more accomplished men. Resembling a young Mia Farrow, her wispiness belies a hard edge that makes totally credible the dangerous allure she presents to a set of suitors. Sewell is burning with passion and anger, and it all comes together when he’s forced to sacrifice his young daughter, Iphigenia, in order to provide proper wind currents for his battalion’s trip to Troy. Callis is fine as Menelaus, though his transition from evil tyrant to Paris’ biggest sympathizer is hardly believable. Two fine actors, Skarsgard as Helen’s first lover and Rhys-Davies as the conflicted ruler, are given too little time.
Story’s most famous adaptation came in 1956 — Robert Wise directed and Rossana Podesta starred.