Cleopatra epic restored to its full glory and re-released for its 50 birthday

Arguably Hollywood’s most influential picture of all time is set for a celebratory face-lifted re-release in selected cinemas and on Blu-ray to mark it’s 50th anniversary.

Presented at Cannes at the 20th Century Fox-Bulgari party by a notably Cleopatraesque Jessica Chastain, the restoration of Cleopatra allowed Hollywood stars to re-live the film that was as infamous off-screen as it was on.

With scandalous love affairs and an inflation-adjusted budget of $400 million, this extravagant four-hour historical epic was well known for almost bankrupting Fox, and one could argue that Cleopatra was the seed of the now-enormous blockbuster-ego tree.

Despite the film’s prodigal mess of a production at times (with often thousands of extras being paid for sitting around sunbathing and the alleged conveyor belt of changing writers and directors) the film eventually managed to make a profit and Fox considers the film as one of its great successes.

Beneath the often-incomprehensible dialogue and commendably elaborate costumes is a simple plot. Julius Caeser and his gang travel to Egypt where he eventually succumbs to the beauty of Cleopatra. Their relationship develops, and when Caeser returns to Rome, he is greeted with great disapproval – bye-bye Caeser. With Caeser assassinated, it is now up to Anthony to travel to Egypt, where – surprise-surprise – Cleopatra’s web catches another one.

Having watched the Blu-ray version, it’s clear that Schwan Belston (Fox’s senior vice president of library and technical services) has done a brilliant job restoring the film: it is beautifully enhanced so that the pictures from the original 65mm film are now almost as detailed and colourful as a typical Pixar animation.

The audio is rid of all of the scratches and clicks that would have made the dialogue compete with the spectacular score and background imperfections, whereas now they wonderfully complement one another. I must admit, however, that although the leads were perfectly audible, some of the lesser characters had particularly unintelligible voices. When you’re three and a half hours in, rewinding to hear what you missed is frustrating to say the least, especially when the finish line is in site.

Of course, it’s a wonderful spectacle and for those of you who are fans of The Lord of the Rings and other such epics I highly recommend it. I, however, find the prospect of watching any film over two and a half hours less appealing than a trip to the dentist. If you’re like me, buy the Blu-ray, watch 45 minute bursts of the film and you should be able to finish it – and actually enjoy it – sometime before Christmas.

For all movie lovers, I would consider your film repertoire incomplete if it does not include Cleopatra and an understanding of the importance of this iconic picture to cinematic history.

The Cleopatra epic will be showing in selected cinemas from 12 July.

words Richard Goodall


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