25 July 2008 | Delmare
Weak on writing, but gorgeous to watch
The first installment of a prospective trilogy, Mongol chronicles the early life of Temudjin, from his childhood on the Asian steppe to his ascension to Khan in 1206.
The performances are passable with special thanks to Honglei Sun, with an engaging turn as Temudjin's long-time friend and ally Jamukha but the film has a rushed quality to it that is predominantly the fault of the screenplay. We jump too quickly from one scene to the next, the tension is constantly disrupted, and the characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional, void of quirks and personal histories and any of the other qualities that might make them relatable. I'm not asking for anything fancy: theirs was a tribal culture constantly engaged in the act of survival, and any philosophical rants or emotive confessionals would feel forced and inorganic, but none of that pardons the film for the simple crime of not giving its characters enough to do. The needs of the plot seem to dictate their actions, rather than the needs of the characters driving the plot.
The biggest casualty, as always, is the love story. Ironically enough, Temudjin and Borte generate the most chemistry when they meet as children, Borte commanding him with a freeness of spirit that gets less and less visible as the movie progresses to pick her as his bride. Unfortunately, their subsequent romance is more about desperate rescues and long-winded goodbyes than it is the simple moments of intimacy that make a relationship believable.
That said, the cinematography is tremendous and the costumes top-notch, and the casting department deserves a couple extra bushels of brownie points for picking actors who unlike many a Hollywood ensemble look like they could actually survive the conditions they supposedly inhabit. The combat scenes are captivating and cleverly shot, and despite the inevitable comparison to such battle-heavy epics as Lord of the Rings and Gladiator, Bodrov keeps a handle on things, never letting any of the battles run beyond the five minute mark, endowing the film with an element of realism and restraint where many of the other so-called epics go completely over the top. True, the movie relies a bit more heavily on CGI than I would prefer, but the Mongolian landscape, the real star of the show, is so gorgeous, so demanding, so jaw-droppingly authentic that we quickly forget our visual grievances and get lost in the rudimentary act of watching.
A pity we can never lose ourselves completely.