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Artisan Home Entertainment presents
Cleopatra (TV) (1999)

Review By: Robert Mandel   
Published: April 23, 2000

Stars: Leonor Varela, Timothy Dalton
Other Stars: Billy Zane, Rupert Graves
Director: Franc Roddam

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes)
Run Time: 02h.57m.00s
Release Date: August 31, 1999
UPC: 707729105145
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It seems a daunting task to take one of the greatest stories ever, add to it the grandeur necessary to tell it properly, and on top of that add the pressure of a previous version known and loved by millions...but, as they say, someone's gotta do it. In 1963, the $37 million Joseph L. Mankiewicz production (with Taylor, Burton, and Harrison) almost forced 20th Century Fox into bankruptcy. The 1999 television version cost $30 million and was considered a good risk. Amazing.

Directed by Franc Roddam (Quadrophenia, Hallmark's Moby Dick), Cleopatra began principal shooting in October 1998, after six months of creating sets and nearly a thousand costumes. The huge Alexandria set was built in Quarzazate, Morocco, and cost $2.5 million. The set stretched a quarter mile and occupied 360,00 square feet. To shoot the picture in just 12 weeks and on budget, Roddam filmed the largest battle sequence—utilizing a thousand extras and six hundred horses—on the first day. Scenes of this proportion are usually shot at the end of the schedule, but Roddam decided on a grueling schedule from day one. Isn't it something that a year later, the mini-series has been shot, canned, broadcast on television, and now on DVD?

Cleopatra, played by the beautiful and alluring French/Chilean actress, Leonor Varela, is a much more modern version of the storied queen than ever presented before. The teleplay by Stephen Harrigan and Anton Diether is based on the book by Margaret George, The Memoirs of Cleopatra, which took her 40 years to research. Everyone involved with the production agrees that this is a stronger, more thoughtful, less conniving Cleopatra than previous incarnations. After all, it's no coincidence that two of the most powerful men in the world were detoured by her bewitching beauty alone.

As the series opens Cleopatra is in exile, her country stolen by her sister and brother with the aid of a corrupt politician, Pothinus. Cleopatra is sneaked into Alexandria where she seduces Julius Caesar (Timothy Dalton). Remarkably, Caesar comes to her aid against her siblings; after all, he says, "Egypt is worth too much to Rome to allow civil war to empty her coffers." Caesar becomes obsessed with the teenager, while she falls in love with his power—all much to the dismay of the Roman senate.

As resentment for Caesar builds among the senators, led by friend and detractor Brutus, Caesar returns to Rome. There, he makes the first of two fatal errors of judgement: instead of ingratiating himself to the Roman senate, he declares himself Emperor and demigod. Unbeknownst to Caesar, back in Alexandria, Cleopatra has given birth to his illegitimate child, which she names Ptolemy Caesar. When Caesar finally calls Cleopatra to Rome, he sends Marc Antony to greet her. Intent on securing Egypt's future in the Roman Empire, she later forces Caesar into his second error, declaring Ptolemy as his son. Since Caesar has no legitimate son by his Roman wife, his nephew Octavian is named his heir apparent. Unhappy about his self-elevation and the possible conflict with an illegitimate, "mixed" heir, the senate grows openly hostile toward Caesar. While Octavian openly defends Caesar, behind the scenes he hedges his bets by telling Brutus and the conspirators he will not prevent them from murdering Caesar, which, of course, they do. When Antony learns of Octavian's scheming, he splinters off with several Roman legions in Egypt. Here he, too, falls for the Egyptian queen and they gather together their forces to fight Octavian for a united Empire under Roman-Egyptian rule.

Roddam took great pains to emphasize the differences between each of the Roman men in Cleopatra's life. Caesar is nearly complete, being a warrior, politician, and a poet. His entrance into the city is presented as bold and military-like. I was rather impressed with Timothy Dalton's portrayal of Caesar, imbuing Julius with a regal air. Marc Antony, portrayed by Billy Zane (Titanic, Tombstone), is the warrior and lover, whose entrance Roddam says, "is like Kennedy in Berlin; joyous, friendly, all-embracing." My fiancée enjoyed Zane in the role, but something about him nagged at me. It may have been the round rat that crawled up his head and died, but I'm not sure. Octavian however, is played superbly by Rupert Graves (Damage, Madness of King George). His Octavian is the conniving, efficient bureaucrat, whose entrance into Alexandria is all business.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Artisan presents Cleopatra in its original 1.33:1 television aspect ratio. This is a good transfer, where the color rendering is deep and rich throughout. Outside a tad of aliasing, the only issue with the picture is that it varies from very detailed and sharp, to soft, as if it had been shot through cheesecloth, possibly a source issue rather than transfer. Overall, the transfer does the color and majesty of the sets justice. It's just too bad they didn't film in widescreen ratio, as they did with Joan of Arc.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The disc comes with a solid Dolby Surround 2.0 sound track, which makes great use of the front soundstage, particularly during the fighting scenes. There is some ambient usage of the rear surrounds, which help add some to the overall measure. The dialogue is placed heavily in the center channel and understandable. Still, it would be nice to have subtitles. The best aspect of the soundtrack is yet another wonderful Trevor Jones (Excalibur, The Mighty, Last of the Mohicans) musical score, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in April 1999. Does this man ever sleep?

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 35 cues and remote access
1 TV Spots/Teasers
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Cleopatra's hidden treasures game
Extras Review: The single-sided picture disc contains an animated interactive main menu, animated scene selection (35 cues), production notes, television trailer, cast and crew bios and filmographies, and Cleopatra's hidden treasures game. These are still fairly basic extras, and along those lines I really wish Artisan would include subtitles and captions for the hearing impaired on all of their releases.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

When Cleopatra first aired, I made the wrong decision and watched another Artisan holding, Noah's Ark, instead. Man, did I make the wrong choice. Cleopatra is a modern retelling, with a star able and willing to live up to one of the strongest, most beguiling women in all history. Made on a scale Cecil B. Demille could admire, Cleopatra should not disappoint. Again, as with Joan of Arc, it is nice to see a strong woman role model portrayed on TV (and DVD) although there is some graphic violence and adult situations not necessarily suited for younger children. I still prefer Taylor, Harrison, and Burton, but this version certainly stands on its own.


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