Helen of Troy (2003) Mini-Series TV Review

As if channeling the oracle Cassandra, screenwriter Ronnie Kern (who I suspect is a woman, but I could be wrong) must have known he/she was in for some backlash by people who spent their bored days pouring over Homer’s epics, because the movie opens with narration that informs us what we’re about to see is “the true story” of what happened at Troy. The narrator even makes mention of the legends that had been written about the events. Having established the story as one based on one man’s perspective, “Helen of Troy” opens with the birth of Paris, whom a young Cassandra warns will bring about the destruction of Troy if he’s allowed to live.

As is always the case with these Greek tales (they don’t call them Greek Tragedies for nothing, you know), Paris survives infanticide and eventually returns home to Troy, where he is sent to Sparta as an emissary. There, Paris and the new Spartan bride Helen (Sienna Guillory) lock eyes and realize they’re supposed to be in love because “the Gods deem it”. Long story short, Helen and Paris hightail it out of Sparta and back to Troy, thus giving brooding and sociopathic Greek Agamemnon (Rufus Sewell), the big brother of the wronged Spartan King Menelaus (James Callis), the excuse to assemble the Greeks against the Trojans. Thus begins the Trojan War.

Actually, the above description is too breezy, because Helen and Paris don’t even meet until almost an hour into the movie, and the Greek-Trojan troubles don’t start until 30 minutes later. Which brings me to this simple conclusion: there isn’t enough here to make a 3-hour movie, and most, if not all, of the first hour is superfluous stuff.

So the big question is, is actress Sienna Guillory (“Time Machine”) beautiful enough that she would ignite a war that lasts 10 years and bring about death and misery to all involved? Well sure, she’s quite attractive, but I can’t say if there was anything particularly special about her that would make her “the most lust after women in the world”. Of course Helen’s supposed “abduction” by Paris (depending on which version you read, Helen either went willingly or she was kidnapped by a horny Paris) is not the real reason for the war as shown by “Helen of Troy”, which comes across more like one of those romantic Harlequin novels than an epic adventure.

Of note is the fact that the mini-series pretty much neglects the Gods except in passing whispers (the phrase “the Gods deem it” shows up a lot). Although it’s odd that there are a couple of curious sequences that undermines the mini-series’ attempt at a “realistic” portrait of things. The filmmakers seem to want it both ways with their movie — as a hopeless romance about fate and destiny and true love, and at the same time a gritty re-telling of events. Which one is it?

Unlike “Attila the Hun”, another historical mini-series by the USA Network, there’s a lot of money sunk into “Helen of Troy”. The whole thing looks quite good, and even the location of Troy, on a very rocky stretch of land, is fitting. And yet, even though the movie has some elaborate battle sequences (mostly in the second half), they’re not well staged enough to convince. It just doesn’t seem as if the actors have spent much time learning how to swing a sword. The action looks too staged, resulting in awkward fights and large crowd scenes where background actors seem lost and confused about what they’re supposed to be doing, or even in which direction to look. The only battle that has any ring of believability is one between Paris and Menelaus, but even this scene is ruined by one of those curious anomalies mentioned earlier, where the filmmakers can’t decide if they’re going for realism for fantasy.

If you were wondering, “Helen of Troy” does indeed stray tremendously from the original works. Hector (Daniel Lapaine) has become a nagging brother whose favorite phrase is “I told you so”, while King Priam (John Rhys-Davies) has become decision-challenged, risking everything so the son he didn’t know he had until a few months ago can shag some hussy who ran off with him. But perhaps the worst re-imagining is Achilles, who has been remade into an Aryan skinhead. Gone is the honorable Achilles whose reason for dragging Paris around Troy post-mortem wasn’t just because he was some brainless oaf on a steady diet of steroids. Needless to say, Achilles’ eventual demise, involving that heel of his, is laughable.

On the other hand, Menelaus is properly ineffectual, while Odysseus (Nigel Whitmey) is the brains of the operation, albeit not by much. Of course the real star of the picture isn’t pretty boy Matthew Marsden or Helen, but rather the enigmatic Agamemnon. The scene that lends credence to Rufus Sewell (“Dark City”) as the real star involves Agamemnon finding out that the only way to appease the Gods so they’ll give him favorable winds in order to sail to Troy is to kill one of his own daughters. The man owns this movie, and no amount of naked Helen will change that. Which, if you were wondering, she is quite a bit.

The other amusing thing about “Helen of Troy” is how characters that have never met within the story have a bad habit of making very grandiose (albeit correct) judgments about each other. Take for example Helen’s claim that Achilles fights for his “hollow pride”, which may in fact be true, but how did she know that? Also, everyone seems to be very keenly aware of Agamemnon’s obsessive need to conquer Troy, even though as played by Rufus Sewell, Agamemnon is a complex and wholly unpredictable man. How exactly did they come by such intimate knowledge of the man? Oh right, I forgot. Because it’s in the script, stupid.

John Kent Harrison (director) / Ronnie Kern (screenplay)
CAST: Sienna Guillory …. Helen
Matthew Marsden …. Paris
Rufus Sewell …. Agamemnon
Stellan Skarsgard …. Theseus
John Rhys-Davies …. King Priam of Troy
Maryam d’Abo …. Queen Hecuba
Emilia Fox …. Cassandra
James Callis …. Menelaus
Daniel Lapaine …. Hector
Nigel Whitmey …. Odysseus
Joe Montana …. Achilles

Buy Helen of Troy on DVD