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Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: Troy: Fall of a City

I feel like I've been waiting my whole life for a comprehensive adaptation of The Iliad and all its adjacent myths. And ... I'm still waiting. Troy: Fall of a City isn't bad, but it never really gets over the threshold of "adequate" either. 

It will certainly replace Wolfgang Peterson's Troy (2004) as the go-to version of the story that gets shown to high school students, and it certainly takes advantage of its extended run-time to expand on several characters (and at least one original subplot) but my inner Greek mythology geek still wishes for the ultimate take on Troy, from Peleus and Thetis's wedding to a closing caption that tells us Aeneus went on to be the founder of Rome.

As it is, I was counting all the omissions: no Laocoön and sons, no Troilus and Cressida, no Oenone the vengeful nymph, no Philoctetes and his festering snake bite, no context given whatsoever to Achilles's heel. Yet for all of that, this miniseries does manage to sneak in a few surprising nods to the mythology (the competition for the golden apple, Odysseus's ploy to dodge the draft, the inclusion of Hermione and Penthesila) as well as hitting all the plot-points you'd expect: Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia, Patroclus taking Achilles's armour, Priam fetching Hector's body, the Trojan Horse, etc.
For the most part it plays out like the "greatest hits" version of the tale, though it does include at least three genuinely good innovations: the explicit depiction of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers (none of that repetitive "my cousin" nonsense that could have been a drinking game in 2004's Troy), Andromache as the brittle voice of reason that no one ever listens to (ironically taking the role of Cassandra, who is present here but largely superfluous) and the ever-reliable Joseph Mawle as Odysseus, who can manipulate every situation to his advantage, except the one time it really matters.
Cousins Lovers
But most of the time events are skimmed and characters thinly drawn. Part of this is the sheer volume of them, and that fact that most of them are killed off halfway through the story, making it impossible to find a protagonist to centre on (if I recall, Troy kept Achilles alive right up to the climax with the Trojan horse, just so there was a singular character the narrative could follow).
Another is that the miniseries can never quite settle on a theme. The futility of war, the inescapable nature of fate, and/or mankind's relationship to capricious gods would have done nicely, based on the fact that the entire war can be traced back to a) Eris's anger in not being invited to the wedding feast and b) three goddesses fighting over who's the most beautiful. Aphrodite promises Paris the most beautiful woman in the world if he chooses her, and then casts a spell so that both Paris and Helen are so consumed with lust they run away together, kick-starting all the carnage that follows.
It's a tragedy because of its abject futility; a story that captures the horror (rather than the joy) of love, fate and the gods. Most variations of the myth have Paris die about five or six years into the siege of Troy, with Helen subsequently "waking up" from the spell she was under and yearning to return home to her daughter, only to be forcibly married to another of Priam's sons.
But these days modern sensibilities can't help but turn Paris/Helen into an "epic love story", as they did in 2004's Troy and 2003's Helen of Troy miniseries. This is despite "pawns of the gods" or "two selfish jerks who are so obsessed with each other that they don't care about all the bloodshed they cause" working just as well. Here the show tries to sell an uncomfortably anachronistic ideal in which Helen is to be celebrated for "following her heart" instead of abandoning her family, daughter and responsibilities as queen, and who ultimately feels so guilty about the carnage done in her name that she eventually turns herself over to the Greeks in exchange for the remaining Trojans' lives.
It just doesn't work, and the fact that we're meant to sympathise with the two of them actually makes it worse than if we were invited to despise them instead. Granted, the show was between a rock and a hard place: if Paris and Helen weren't charismatic and loveable (at least to the Trojans) then how on earth does the narrative justify keeping them within the walls of the city instead of promptly returning Helen to the Greeks?
All this naturally means that Agamemnon and Menelaus are once again depicted as villains (it's odd to think that the Ancient Greeks would have considered them heroic for waging war on Troy for the sake of their family honour), and that audience sympathy is naturally skewed in favour of the losing side. I think we have a natural inclination to root for the underdogs, and in this case the Trojans are almost ludicrously noble and wise and egalitarian, up to and including Queen Hecuba having an equal voice alongside her husband on matters of state, and the lowly people of the streets accepting Helen as one of their own.
This muddled characterization also extends to Achilles: bloody-thirsty warrior who's only in it for the thrill of battle, or noble poet who looks upon the whole thing as a futile endeavour? Depending on the episode, he could be either one. Personally I'd love to see the character portrayed as a complete psychopath that even the Greeks can barely control (it's touched on, as with the inevitable squabble over Briseis with Agamemnon, but at all times Achilles acts completely composed and articulate. No brain-addled berserker here). 
But I'll say this for the show: it's doesn't hold back when it comes to portraying the horrific tragedy that awaits the titular city. 2004's Troy allowed for the escape of Paris, Helen, Andromache and Astyanax – no such joy here: Paris is killed, Helen is returned to Menelaus, Andromache (and Cassandra) are sold into slavery, and Astyanax is duly thrown from the walls of Troy. Also, Priam and Hecuba commit suicide, Troilus and Deiphobus are killed in combat, and the entire city is all but razed to the ground.
It's at this point that the show finally gets the story it's telling: that there is no honour or glory in war, nor even in love if it's used to hurt or maim other people – just tragedy and despair for all involved. Helen is returned to captivity, Andromache faces life without her family, Agamemnon is still haunted by Iphigenia's death, and Odysseus is a broken man. What was the point of it all?  
Miscellaneous Observations:
The limited budget is clear when you take in the less-than-impressive outer gate of Troy (it looks like a strong gust of wind could take it down) and some of its interiors (what seems to be the royal pavilion is a street-level sandpit). As largely awful as 2004's Troy was, it does make you wish for Hollywood budget.
I said earlier that modern storytellers are often too eager to excuse or sublimate blame when it comes to the terrible things done by certain characters, but even the Ancient Greeks weren't immune: I've already mentioned some versions of the story in which Helen is under a love spell the whole time, but there are also versions in which Iphigenia is saved by the gods at the last minute, and a sacrificial deer put in her place, thus sparing Agamemnon from the crime of filicide. It's funny in a way, because you still see this phenomnena today: people in fandom coming up with all sorts of ridiculous reasons why their "problematic fave" isn't so terrible after all.
One day someone will figure out how to integrate the gods into these types of stories. It hasn't happened yet, but there's so much potential in seeing them squabbling among themselves, manipulating events, and pitting hapless mortals against one another like it's all a grand soap opera staged for their amusement. Greek gods: the original fandom.
By a complete coincidence actress Chloe Pirrie has turned up in four of the shows I've watched in the last two months: An Inspector CallsThe CrownTo Walk Invisible, and now this. Funny how that works.
Paris and Helen never make it onto any "world's greatest lovers" lists alongside the likes of Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Heathcliff and Cathy, Tarzan and Jane, Elizabeth and Darcy, Beauty and the Beast, etc, which is interesting given their infamy. I suppose it's because the carnage they cause is too great to justify their placement among the others – even Romeo and Juliet managed to keep the death toll to four (including themselves).
And that's why they make such good foils to the other love story of The Iliad: Hector and Andromache. Unlike Paris and Helen, they're not a story of passion or desire – theirs was a formally arranged marriage from which genuine love grew. It's not the stuff of epic literature, but it's the kind we should aspire to, and its depiction here is one of the undisputed successes of the show. For what they did to Hector and Andromache alone, Paris and Helen's conduct is unforgivable.  
For all its flaws, there is occasionally a truly glorious scene that keeps you watching: for example, during the first skirmish between the Greeks and the Trojans, the gods and goddesses walk among the heat, dust and chaos of battle, calling out blessings to their chosen ones. It's beautiful. 
Because we all live in the 21st century, it's easy to see the Trojans as impossibly stupid for taking the Trojan horse into the city walls. But by omitting Laocoön (whose death comes is interpreted as verification that the horse is safe) and having the body of the horse filled with much-needed grain, it makes a bit more sense. So I give them credit for bit of writing.
If the BBC decides to continue with either The Aeneid or The Odyssey, I'd tune in. Both are set up for pretty well, and it's been a while since our last adaptation of the latter, which was in 1997. And as far as I know, there's never been a take on The Aeneid.
And on a final note, let me introduce you to the saddest painting ever put to canvas: Captive Andromache by Frederic Leighton. It captures the full weight of grief and suffering like nothing else I've ever seen:


2 comments:

  1. Slightly further back, Ms Pirrie was also in The Living and the Dead and War and Peace. (She was also in "Burn Burn Burn" with Laura Carmichael, which I don't think you've seen but think you'd enjoy.)

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    1. Oh, was she? Dang, I watched/reviewed both those shows but I can't remember her role in them! (Better check IMDB).

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