Screenwriter David Scarpa says Sony’s in-the-works Cleopatra will be a “dirty, bloody” political thriller. Denis Villeneuve is in talks to direct the historical biopic based on Stacy Schiff’s 2010 book Cleopatra: A Life. Angelina Jolie has long been attached to the project, but it’s unknown whether she remains on-board.
Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who seduced both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, has long fascinated Hollywood. Early filmmakers took multiple stabs at the character, notably in 1917 with the legendary Theda Bara (the film is now lost). Cecil B. DeMille gave Cleopatra’s story his lavish treatment in 1932, with Claudette Colbert. George Bernard Shaw’s Casear and Cleopatra came to screens in 1945 with Vivien Leigh as a feline Cleo. In 1963, Fox mounted a gigantic production of Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film cost $31.1 million, making it the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Considered a massive folly in its day, the film now enjoys a reputation as something of a camp classic (though at 248 minutes, it remains a bit of a slog).
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Speaking to THR, screenwriter David Scarpa discussed Sony’s upcoming take on Cleopatra. Scarpa says this time they will eschew the standard epic approach and focus on Cleopatra as a political operator:
With Cleopatra … instead of doing the movie as the prestige picture — the three-hour, lots of pageantry, people with fans and English accents and all that stuff — [we] really treat it as a political thriller. Dirty, bloody, lots of people swearing and having sex and all of that other stuff and just treat it as a two-hour, lean, mean political thriller, full of assassinations, etc. Just going the opposite direction from the way we think that movie is going to go.
Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life received praised for stripping away the Cleopatra myth to get at the complex woman beneath. Scarpa’s description indicates that the movie he wrote will follow this same approach. Instead of Cleopatra the temptress and wearer of fantastic clothes, Sony means to give us Cleopatra the politician. Of course, politics in ancient Egypt was a lot bloodier and dirtier than politics today. Scarpa indicates he will leave in the fun stuff like sex and swearing, while presenting a more well-rounded view of Cleopatra.
Scarpa’s description of Cleopatra as a “political thriller” hints at why Sony would pursue Denis Villeneuve to tackle the project. We associate Villeneuve mainly with sci-fi now, but previously he was best-known as the director of Sicario, a thriller that certainly was “dirty” and “bloody.” Villeneuve without doubt possesses the visual style and narrative command to make an intriguing Cleopatra film. And with the ever-mysterious Angelina Jolie in the lead, Sony could have the makings of a big hit. After a century of superficial Hollywood depictions of Cleopatra, a movie that showed her as a savvy ruler and cunning behind-the-scenes operator would be most welcome.
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Cleopatra has yet to receive a release date.