I might be biased because I grew up with Hallmark Entertainment and with this film, but, as much as I appreciate Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh, Leonor Varela’s depiction of the Queen of the Nile will always be my favourite. I remember the confidence of the queen on screen, her determination, charm, sensuality, seductiveness, strength of character, grace, her remarkable, golden, exotic beauty, her wit, pride, and scheming nature. Sometimes ruthless & devious, other times displaying a feminine vulnerability or light-hearted liveliness and exuberance, she is an overall compelling multi-dimensional character. Upon close analysis, the theatrical intensity of Leonor’s acting is in some moments more convincing than others, and some scenes reveal a more childish, playful, yet still passionate nature. However, as I will elaborate later, not much is known about the personality of the real Cleopatra, hence the acting doesn’t stand out as inappropriate, given the room for interpretation. The character Leonor re-creates and embodies is captivating.
The TV movie is an adaptation of the historical fiction book by Margaret George, The Memoirs of Cleopatra; and the experience of the movie is often very immersive, especially for a TV adaptation, due to the chemistry between the main actors (Leonor Varela as Cleo, Timothy Dalton as Caesar, and Billy Zane as Marc Antony), the impressive locations and clothing, and the atmosphere created by a mix of elements, completed by the sensual, exotic notes from the soundtrack. In the famously unique meeting between Cleopatra and Caesar, when she is rolled out of a carpet brought as a gift to the palace where he stays, her sensual & sultry allure is magnified by her spiritual, enticing melodic theme. It is a mesmerising moment which reveals the strong connection between the two characters: the way they gaze at each other with devouring eyes, their faces warmly and softly touched by the gentle light of the candles, and the way they both play the game of seduction. Timothy Dalton delivers a strong, mature, & intense performance of a charming figure.
The haunting suicide scene at the end artfully incorporates lush decorations and temples, glistening lights, the exotic beauty covered in gold and surrounded by flames, and the sacred aesthetic of the mise-en-scene. The beautifully framed moments reveal the passion and devotion of her people, the faith her servants exhibit until the end, and Cleopatra’s self-assured nature as she is ready to step into the unknown, uttering a few final words worthy of the representation of Isis, the goddess of rebirth and magic.
Some facts about the real Queen Cleopatra: ancient contemporary accounts of what Cleopatra was like are very rare. Since she had a lot of enemies, some of those sources are also biased and unreliable. Most descriptions of her have been written down by male historians centuries later. Whilst some of these later writings -such as that of Roman historian Cassius Dio – focus on her exceptional beauty (possibly due to her reputation of seducing two powerful leaders), others such as Plutarch’s words in Life of Antony reveal that what was fascinating about her was not her beauty, which he claims was allegedly not unparalleled in itself; it was a combination of many enticing traits. The fact that conversation with her
“had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…”.
The appeal of her physical beauty alone is hardly the most significant matter when it comes to the Queen of the Nile, especially as ideals of beauty have a tendency to shift across history and cultures. Common aspects emphasised in historiography are her captivating attitude, intelligence, enchanting character, and her supposedly sweet voice. Cleopatra portrayed herself as the resurrection of the mother goddess Isis – mother of Horus and sister and wife of Osiris, the god of the afterlife and the underworld. The goddess Isis was a symbol of motherhood, fertility, magic, and rebirth. Pharaohs followed a tradition of connecting royalty to the divine in order to remind their people of their sacred role, supreme will, and protective power. Cleopatra’s kingdom was eventually invaded by the Romans led by Octavian, but we shouldn’t forget that, for many years before her suicide, she protected Egypt, established bonds between Rome and Egypt, and was an apt military ruler, scholar, and linguist.
The main cast of Cleopatra (1999):
Cleopatra: Leonor Varela
Caesar: Timothy Dalton
Marc Antony: Billy Zane