This film is centred around several naval battles. In keeping with a nautical metaphor, I am going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I would not have chosen to watch this movie … which explains why I did not see its predecessor: ‘300’. Unlike the feisty women of the film: Persian Admiral Artemisia (played brilliantly by Eva Green) and Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), I don’t relish being drenched in a “tidal wave of heroes’ blood”. Despite the blood and gore, the film is engaging on many other levels – spectacular 3D work, magnificent costuming and gorgeous cinematography.
Although I did not see the predecessor to this film, I was not at a disadvantage. This film’s narrative is intercut with scenes referencing ‘300’ where the Spartan king and his army confronted the Persian King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ suggests that around the same time as the Spartans’ land battle was taking place, several sea battles were also being fought by the Athenians, who were commanded by General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Stapleton is great as a buff action hero, but in the scenes where he speaks to the Athenian assembly about going to war, his Australian accent is jarring, and so intrusive, that it cuts through the delicate fabric of veracity, and reminds the viewer that this is not real, it is a re-creation of events.
Viewing this film in 3D made it far more visceral. The rain soaked the warriors and the audience, the dust particles in the sunlight danced just before our eyes, and the swords swung within a whisker of our noses, with the blood splattering (so it seemed) both our faces and those engaged in battle. Together with the drum-heavy soundtrack, it made the carnage more brutal; it’s repellent to watch the fierce, barbaric butchering that goes on, and on, and on. Yet, I wonder, if war is any different today. Injury might occur in a more ‘clinical’ manner via, perhaps, a drone strike, but is the suffering and bloodshed any less nauseating and inhumane?
The wardrobe and make-up department in this movie deserves an award! Alexandra Byrne (already an Oscar winner) crafted a range of dresses for Artemesia that are overlaid with menace. We are introduced to her striding purposefully through King Darius’ palace in a dress composed of leather strips that hiss as she walks. In another scene, she appears to wear an unremarkable black sheath dress, with inlaid gold panel, but her power lurks in the detail: black chains drape from the shoulders of the dress. In the final scene, she wears a figure-hugging outfit that has an external spine protruding from it and fittingly, she fights with two swords while wearing this intimidating number. King Xerxes looks god-like; beautifully sculpted, huge and golden. Mostly, he is seen gazing at his people from on high – with low angle shots enhancing his mythic status. By contrast, the hunchback messenger is crafted into a repugnant lump of mangled flesh and gargoyle eye. Simply stunning!
The British painter Turner mastered the art of transforming banal naval scenes into shimmering canvases of light and delicate hints of colour. Director Noam Murro, and cinematographer Simon Duggan have managed to provide some balance to the heavy, blood-soaked spectacle, through a delicate touch whenever possible. The Greek ships departing in the cold grey light of dawn, with a tight focus on the oars dipping into the still water is a memorable shot. The giant moon that hovers over Artemesia’s barge is photographed in a way that is both beautiful and ominous. The visual metaphor is sustained when Artemesia speaks of her life to Themistocles in a series of oxymoronic statements: “The ecstasy of steel and flesh, death and life … of pure joy and deepest sorrow.”
So what’s the verdict on ‘300: Rise of an Empire?’ It’s violent, it’s graphic, it’s vicious, but if you can stomach that, then it’s also very entertaining.