She started out as Julius Caesar’s bimbo eruption run amok, navigated a circuitous, deadly path as the Queen of Egypt and wound up folding a poisonous serpent to her breast as the kingdom began to cave in around her. Now, Cleopatra has been reduced to a May sweeps epic, but fortunately she’s got Robert Halmi, pere et fils, on the case. The result is a Hallmark Entertainment-sized “Cleopatra” that is profoundly worthy of Cleo’s fabled legacy and easily the most entertaining big-ticket event of the month. Thirty-six years after the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton theatrical fiasco, somebody has finally gotten it right.
Beneath the jewels and headgear, the breastplates and silk resides a crackling good soap opera that the Halmis (in tandem with scribes Stephen Harrigan and Anton Diether and helmer Franc Roddam) have managed to render in grand style during four lively hours that fairly race by. Camp without being lame or buffoonish, “Cleopatra” is a lusty, tasty treat from start to finish.
A big part of that is due to the casting. Leonor Varela (“The Man in the Iron Mask”) appears to be all wrong for Cleopatra: Chilean-born, dark, diminutive, pouty, not terribly regal. But she turns out instead to be a true find, inhabiting the role with a smoldering gusto borne of defiant confidence. She uses those come-hither eyes to heart-fluttering impact, and the chemistry she enjoys with her Marc Antony (played by Billy Zane, who was Kate Winslet’s stuffy aristocratic fiance’ in “Titanic”) sets the screen literally aboil.
Varela and Zane linked up for real after production on “Cleopatra” wrapped, and it’s easy to see why. The passion in their love scenes embodies a certain heated, I-want-to-rip-off-your-clothes-and-ravish-you-forever quality. Yet Varela also connects believably with Timothy Dalton, who makes for a charismatic and commanding Julius Caesar. And her sheer silk outfits during night two are decidedly risque stuff for network primetime. With a grateful nod to costume designer Enrico Sabbatini, let’s call it Areolae on Parade.
The mini boldly, and at the outset with great theatricality, charts the pothole-laden road traveled by the feisty Queen of the Nile, characterizing Cleopatra as alternately scheming, manipulative, seductive, ruthless, fragile and tough (she even manages to wield a mean sword). The lady, in short, has chutzpah, which is clear from the moment that she’s delivered at the feet of Caesar inside a rug.
Caesar (about to jump his sexy visitor’s bones): “Can I trust you, Cleopatra?”
Cleo: “I am Egypt. And Egypt is yours. … For one night only.”
Now that’s good, solid, cheesy dialogue.
A tempestuous relationship between the two ensues as Cleo maneuvers her way into Caesar’s heart and to the top of his splintered kingdom. Varela in the process showcases a decidedly modern-thinking queen who reacts with spite when she is dismissed as “Caesar’s whore” — even after giving birth to his bastard son.
Second installment picks up after Caesar’s murder as Antony moves into the lover’s seat astride Cleopatra and the action heats up to illustrate the bloody battle for the heart and soul of the Roman Empire. Bonds are shattered. Hearts are broken. Blood is spilled by the gallon. And through it all, Cleopatra uses her wiles and sensuality to persevere — until her enemies prove too mighty.
The battle scenes are staged with excitement and flair by production designer Martin Hitchcock and lensed sharply and clearly by director of photography David Connell and his team.
And director Roddam, whose previous works include “Quadrophenia” and “Lords of Discipline,” masterfully steers the action with a sense of purpose. He is able to squeeze the maximum impact from a scene, whether it be a momentous proclamation or a quiet palace interlude.
But the bottom line here is that you won’t want to shut off “Cleopatra.” You just rarely get an opportunity to watch people this unctuously earnest wearing get-ups this insanely gaudy. And then there is Varela … who alone is well worth the price of admission. Expect this mini to reap vast riches in the sweeps kingdom.
Tech credits sparkle.