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'Cleopatra' is wickedly extravagant soap

Sunday, May 23, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ten years after "Dynasty" left the air, it lives again on ABC.

Instead of being set in Denver in the greed-is-good 1980s, it's plunked into Egypt in 47 B.C. With both old and new, the sets and wardrobe are wickedly extravagant and the story sizzles with sibling rivalry, female cat fights, illicit but very public love affairs, illegitimate children, a lust for power and suicide pacts.

 
    TV REVIEW

'Cleopatra'

When: 9 May 23 and May 24 on ABC.

Starring: Leonor Varela, Timothy Dalton, Billy Zane

 
 

It's "Cleopatra," executive produced by two of the men who rule the world of mini-series the way Cleopatra and Julius Caesar commanded their empires: Hallmark Entertainment's Robert Halmi Sr. and Robert Halmi Jr. They're responsible for such ratings-grabbers as "Noah's Ark," "Alice in Wonderland," and "Lonesome Dove." Their projects are usually critic-proof, so heavily promoted in sweeps months that they virtually force viewers to watch.

Starring in the title role, once owned by queen of the eyeliner Elizabeth Taylor, is Leonor Varela, a native of Chile who was seen in "The Man in the Iron Mask." She is a dark-haired beauty who, competing with her siblings for the throne in ancient Egypt, turns her charms on Julius Caesar (Timothy Dalton), who happily succumbs.

Before you can say queen of the Nile, they are plotting to rule the world, she gives birth to Caesar's son - which makes his wife none too happy - and he falls victim to his enemies back in Rome. That opens the door and boudoir for Marc Antony (Billy Zane).

His affair with Cleopatra doesn't go over well with his wife, Octavia, or her power-hungry brother, Octavian (Rupert Graves, as a curly-haired priss). After four hours, it's time to summon the cobra wrangler.

Until now, the most famous "Cleopatra" was the four-hour 1963 version starring Taylor, Richard Burton as Antony and Rex Harrison as Caesar. Director Joseph Mankiewicz never quite recovered from the flop that generated headlines for its bloated budget - $300 million, in today's dollars - and passionate Burton-Taylor affair.

This "Cleopatra," which cost $30 million, is all about spectacle: costumes, glistening gold helmets, shoulder-grazing earrings, battles waged by soldiers on horseback with swords drawn, and baths in a pool with a sheen of rose petals. Don't expect much in the way of motivation or historical perspective or even a map, which could serve as a viewer cheat sheet.

Don't expect every encyclopedic detail, either. We see Cleopatra give birth to a son she calls Caesarion but no mention is ever made of a subsequent set of twins. Details of death have been fiddled with, too. In mini-series style, it hits the high points, with an emphasis on the easily visualized: parades, parties, passionate embraces and bloody battles fought with spears, swords and fireballs flung from catapults.

"Cleopatra," based on the 1997 Margaret George book "The Memoirs of Cleopatra," was filmed in Morocco and London. It doesn't stint on extras or splendor but scenes which call for a fleet of ships or pyramids in the distance look like computer enhancements.

The dialogue is either stilted or soapy, as when Cleopatra teases Caesar: "I am Egypt, and Egypt is yours for one night only." Actually, she underestimated the length of the occupation and we see she's picked up tips on how to satisfy a man every time from a courtesan.

The real Cleopatra, reference books tell us, was part Macedonian, part Greek and Iranian and Varela looks the part. With the help of sheer, bosom-hugging gowns, she smolders and schemes but obviously doesn't have the presence of a Liz Taylor. We meet her at age 20 and never get a sense of how or why she seems, at turns, ruthless, iron-willed, savvy about battle and yet, when people are starving, sympathetic.

Dalton, here wearing tunics instead of James Bond tuxedos, provides a touch of class as Caesar, a man who speaks in the third person and considers himself dictator for life and a demi-god, too. Billy Zane, the insufferable fiancÚ in "Titanic," looks the part of a Roman warrior but has an annoying acting habit: When he wants to infuse a line with extra emotion, he talks louder. And, please, don't ask him to cry on camera again. Ever.

Despite four hours (actually three, once you excise the ads), it seems to just skim the surface, like a boat navigating the Nile.

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