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TV Review: 'Helen of Troy' offers new diversion on Easter

Sunday, April 20, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Fans of sword-and-sandal epics have a choice to make this Easter night: Watch something old, tried and true or try something new.

ABC offers the umpteenth airing of Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" at 7 p.m., but at 8 p.m. cable's USA Network premieres "Helen of Troy," a two-part, four-hour miniseries.

"Helen of Troy"

When: 8 tonight and tomorrow night on USA Network.

Starring: Sienna Guillory, Matthew Marsden, Rufus Sewell.

Though decidedly low-rent in its production design, "Helen of Troy" weaves a crisp, efficient, uncomplicated story. That may seem like faint praise and low expectations, but in the current miniseries climate -- too often muddled stories with no sense of the characters -- "Helen" comes off as a decent, entertaining production.

Unlike TNT's "Mists of Avalon," "Helen" is not a feminist take on the ancient myth. Indeed, Helen (Sienna Guillory) is at the center of the story, but she doesn't drive the action. The guys still handle that.

After the birth of a son, King Priam (John Rhys-Davies) hears his 8-year-old daughter Cassandra (Emilia Fox) proclaim that if the child lives, their fair city of Troy will burn.

Priam sends the infant to be killed, but the flunky charged with the task can't bring himself to kill a baby. A shepherd rescues the child and names him Paris (Matthew Marsden).

Ultimately, Paris is reunited with his real family, but only after he has a vision of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the ancient world. She has a vision of Paris, too, and their linked fate is sealed.

That doesn't prevent her marriage to Menelaus (James Callis), who, with his vicious brother Agamemnon (Rufus Sewell), makes life nightmarish for Helen, Paris and all the citizens of Troy.

War -- over Helen, over access to spices -- ensues and the veritable Trojan horse makes its debut.

For viewers who complain that TV has grown too violent, too sexual, the ancient story of "Helen" proves this isn't entirely new. In this version of the ancient, epic tale, there's war, rape, infidelity, the killing of a spouse and the murder of a child at the hands of her father. The squeamish will be relieved to know "Helen" handles these plot twists delicately -- particularly the murder of the child -- with minimal blood shed on screen and only brief glimpses of Helen's bare behind.

"Helen of Troy" basically plays it straight, but there is an informality about some of the miniseries that's refreshing. When Paris first returns to Sparta, he prepares for a duel. Cassandra sees him and mutters, "You should be dead."

"Give me a minute," he replies before heading into the ring.

There aren't too many of these lighter moments in the script by Ronni Kern, but just enough to keep "Helen" from getting overly serious. The biggest flaw in Kern's script is its depiction of Helen. Her background as the illegitimate daughter of the most powerful god isn't made sufficiently clear nor is the reason Menelaus forces her to parade around naked in his court.

Directed by John Kent Harrison, "Helen" provides its own take on the classic mythology, introducing characters such as Achilles (Joe Montana) and his weak, defenseless heel.

In a cast of mostly unknowns, the better known performers -- Davies and Maryam D'Abo as Queen Hecuba -- have the smallest roles.

Rufus Sewell, a veteran of "A Knight's Tale" and British costume dramas "Middlemarch" and "Carrington," easily slips into the villain's role of self-loathing Agamemnon. Marsden makes a righteous, likable hero as Paris.

Menelaus narrates the miniseries, which concludes with a statement that rings true in ancient times and again today: "War is waged by nations, but it is human beings who pay the price. In this dark time all we have to hang onto is love, and it is through love we hope and pray the gods will send us peace."


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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