Except for a few brilliant flashes, mostly from Peter O’Toole as Hector’s father, the Trojans’ magisterially woebegone King Priam, Troy is a fairly routine action picture with an advanced case of grandeuritis. (Its $175 million budget is, however, not routine—not yet, anyway.) The actors model their profiles as if they were going to be stamped on coins. Some are more successful at this than others: Hector, for instance, strikes noble poses even when he’s nestling with wife and child. On the other hand, his brother, Paris (Orlando Bloom), whose seduction-abduction of Helen (Diane Kruger) from her husband, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), kicks off the festivities, is supposed to be the image of romantic ardor—though most of the time he just looks flummoxed by what he has wrought. He’s a nincompoop for the ages. Helen isn’t much better. The face that launched a thousand ships would be more comfortable launching a new line of cosmetics. Helen’s beauty is the center of the action, yet there is no ominous force in her features, just a bright prettiness. After Paris wimps out in his big public face-off with Menelaus, Helen reassures him that she doesn’t want a hero, just a man she can “grow old with.” Doesn’t she know that dying young is an occupational hazard in his line of work?
Achilles, the world’s greatest warrior, is initially reluctant to lead the attack against Troy under the banner of the perpetually snarling Agamemnon (Brian Cox), king of the Mycenaeans and brother of Menelaus. Achilles detests Agamemnon for using the abduction of Helen as a transparent excuse to extend his empire. But Achilles’s mother, Thetis (Julie Christie in a way-too-brief cameo), prophesizes that if he fights the Trojans, the world will forever remember his name. So that’s that. Achilles is not only the first great hero in Western lit, he’s also the first media whore.
“The actors are forever striking classical poses, trying to memorialize the drama. But you can’t force this kind of thing—either you’re mythic or you’re not.”
Looking gold-dipped and leonine, Brad Pitt has an inchoate surliness. At times, he appears to be doing a Brando, especially when Achilles stands before the gates of Troy and yells,“Hector!” at the top of his lungs. (Presumably, Stella was unavailable.) Still, Pitt isn’t bad in the role, and he (or someone) invented a marvelous leaping motion for Achilles when he moves in for the kill; for a split second, he seems to corkscrew through the air. His character has been cleaned up for the movies, though. For one thing, Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund), his dearest friend in The Iliad, whose death at the hands of Hector incites Achilles’s vengeance, is now his cousin—just in case all that Greek male bonding seemed suspect. Achilles’s elaborate funeral for Patroclus has been cleaned up, too. No human sacrifices here. And Briseis (Rose Byrne), a sexy Trojan priestess, is on hand to bring out Achilles’s softer side—i.e., he doesn’t kill her.
The filmmakers decided to leave out the many gods who populate The Iliad, and it’s probably just as well. It would have been the height of camp to have, say, Sean Connery pop up as Zeus. But without them, the movie needs more than ever an infusion of mythic feeling, and we don’t get it. Homer’s unpitying recitation of war’s awful allure is rendered as a series of confused skirmishes, and the Trojan horse looks like a gigantic wicker objet d’art. Maybe this is why the actors are forever striking classical poses; they’re trying to memorialize the drama. But you can’t force this kind of thing—either you’re mythic or you’re not. This is why the only characters in Troy who appear larger than life are those played by actors who are larger than life. Julie Christie makes you believe, in her scant screen time, that this mother is both fiercely proud of and afraid for her son. And the clouded eyes and fine-drawn El Greco features of Peter O’Toole, along with his peerlessly dolorous line readings, give Priam a great gravity. The horror on his face as he watches his son become carrion is equal to Homer’s finest poetry.