Continuing on in our Russell Crowe quadruple bill we come to the film for which he won his first and currently only Best Actor Oscar. Unlike his turn in The Insider, his performance in Gladiator is anything but subtle as we witness him hacking off the heads of men, women and tigers alike in order to avenge his murdered wife and child.
I have several vivid memories of watching, or not watching Gladiator, as I was originally intending to see it on release only for my bus to the cinema to be held up and the usher not let me into watch the movie. I then initially saw it on a school coach trip back from Belgium, before finally buying it on DVD and viewing it in the comfort of my own living room. I’m honestly not surprised that Gladiator won the Best Picture Oscar as Ridley Scott’s film harks back to an old-fashioned sort of film-making albeit one made with a 21st century budget. Scott’s relaunch of the sword and sandals epic would mean that we would have Gladiator wannabes for years to come but this was certainly a visual treat. The film’s final third, depicting the Roman Coliseum was a particularly stunning piece of cinema with the Maltese locations acting as an authentic backdrop. Meanwhile the period costumes were incredibly designed and the score, although a little embellished at times, helped create a certain atmosphere. John Mathieson’s cinematography helped capture every facial expression, every battle and every movement with pinpoint precision. For the majority of the film I couldn’t take my eye off the screen and that’s a testament to Mathieson’s work as well as Scott’s overall vision.
If Gladiator has one weakness then it’s in its screenplay as I found a lot of the scenes were overly expositional. Indeed, there are scenes in which characters simply list their traits to one another which is witnessed just before Commodus murders his father. In fact I’m surprised the screenplay even received an Oscar nomination as the film really thrived in the moments where there was no dialogue at all. That’s mainly due to the fact that Crowe has such an expressive face that can tell a lot more stories than what’s written on the page. Plenty of the scenes in Gladiator see Maximus reacting to the situation he finds himself in with actions not words and this allows Crowe to play to his strengths. The scenes that focus on his expression as he meets with enemies both on the battlefield and the arena are some of Gladiator’s strongest. Crowe’s Maximus is every inch the hero and luckily Joaquin Phoenix portrays Commodus as the oily, cowardly villain that he’s meant to be. Phoenix was Oscar-nominated for his turn in this film which would be his first massive role and I found him to play the role to perfection. Connie Nielsen also deserves some praise for her role as Commodus’ sister/love interest Lucilla; a strong female who doesn’t quite know where her heart lies. As a fan of classic British cinema; Scott has loaded the supporting cast with some famous faces including Derek Jacobi, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. Gladiator would actually be Reed’s last film role, he died during filming, and I felt it would be a wonderful tribute to the man if he were at least nominated for his role as gladiator trainer Proximo. On reflection Gladiator deserves the five Oscars it won however it missed out on both the art direction and cinematography awards which I felt was a mistake. Ultimately Ridley Scott has made an old-fashioned epic with a modern twist and has cast a wonderfully expressive actor in the lead role.