This review was originally written for Cherwell
‘Paul W. S. Anderson’s ‘historical’ epic lacks the character development, the plot imagination and the emotional depth to adequately convey any sense of meaningful tragedy’
Relating the events at Pompeii to Tacitus, Pliny the Younger wrote:
‘You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, other that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world.’
How is it then, that with Pompeii, Paul W. S. Anderson has managed to create a ‘historical’ disaster movie that actively degrades this material? Emotion is severely lacking in this ‘swords and sandals’ Titanic-remake. One of the most arrestingly tragic events of all time has been reduced to well-worn cliché, to a derivative monstrosity of commercial enterprise that is mildly offensive and only sporadically entertaining.
Game of Throne’s Kit Harington stars as Milo, a rugged Celt who finds himself thrust into Pompeii’s violent gladiator school after his horseman tribe is slaughtered by Senator Corvus’s army. Predictably, Milo befriends hulking fellow prisoner Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and falls in love with the comely Cassia (Emily Browning), an upper-class beauty fed up with the barbarism of Rome and (surprise, surprise) also pursued by the malevolent Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). Vesuvius’ rumbles ominously throughout, until it erupts spectacularly, throwing Pompeii into chaos and our star cross’d lovers to flee for their lives.
The lack of chemistry between all involved is laughable at times. Harington’s attempt at implying a brooding depth of character extends to speaking in a husky voice and balefully staring at everyone/everything. Browning is only marginally more engaging; she does a good job of being smitten by Milo’s horse-whispering compassion but is wholly unconvincing as a woman trapped between love and propriety. Sutherland is mildly entertaining but his strange quasi-British accent is extremely off-putting.
A similar lack of depth is found throughout. Any vestige of profundity the plot contains is lost by the sheer lack of emotion conveyed as hundreds of town-folk are burnt alive. The poignancy of Pompeii lies in the personal nature of the tragedy, the realism of the petrified plaster casts, the apparent familiarity of their day to day life. As hosts of supporting characters meet their fiery deaths, their lack of development, far from leaving one gaping at this heart-rending calamity, leaves one mildly disinterested.
Desperately emotionless it may be, Pompeii retains some cinematographic merit for its well-choreographed fight sequences and fantastically impressive CGI eruption. Although its amphitheatre scenes are virtually copied from Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator, they are still entertaining for the childishly-enthusiastic 6-year-old inside, as is the gloriously eye-catching Vesuvius.
With Pompeii, director Anderson has taken this description as the unelaborated basis of his film. Presumably he thought that if enough people ran around screaming with their arms aloft, the harrowing personal stories of Vesuvius’ eruption would be done justice. Pompeii lacks the character development, the plot imagination and the emotional depth to adequately convey any sense of meaningful tragedy.