Friday, June 6, 2014

The Ladies Lead Pompeii

Browning as Cassia and Moss as Aurelia
Yes, I watched Pompeii finally.  When I first saw the trailer, I immediately sent it to my friend.  We both instantly knew we wanted to watch it but also make fun of it.  When we tried to watch it with others, we couldn't get past the first five minutes.  I got past those first five minutes a few weeks later, and I'm glad I did.  I enjoyed the movie.  It wasn't great, or even good; but it provided strong female characters.  Really, the women are the stars of the show, as the men are lackluster.


...Will you break my neck if I break my leg, too?
Cassia (Emily Browning) isn't a damsel in distress like I thought she'd be.  She isn't calculating, like everyone usually is portrayed in Ancient times.  When we meet her, she's traveling from Rome to Pompeii with her supposed best friend Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), who turns out to be her personal slave.  But Ariadne is never treated like a slave; she's treated like a friend and is loved dearly by Cassia and vice versa.  The movie takes a turn for the terrible when the horse leading Cassia's carriage breaks a leg.  When the chained slave Milo (Kit Harrington) offers to help the horse, she accepts and orders his chains undone.  He feels up the horse and proceeds to break its neck.  The entire time, they couldn't help but screw each other with their eyes.  And it's a classic, vomit-inducing love at first sight trope, where he is a horse whisperer and she loves horses, especially hers (I don't blame her; horses are fantastic).  So how could she not fall for the man who can whisper to horses?

When Cassia returns, she's followed by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who is very much intent on marrying Cassia.  She even notes that she felt so uncomfortable around him that she left because she felt that he'd rape her at any time.  Cassia reveals to Ariadne that she thought leaving Rome would make him forget her and "turn his attention towards some other poor victim."  And that's just what he wants her to be: a victim.
Cassia: I saw a look in that man's eye tonight, Ariadne.  The same look I saw in Rome.
Ariadne: But the senator never laid a hand on you.
Cassia: Only before I left Rome before he could.  Now Rome has followed us back to turn the world inside out.

Not all can escape or foretell the situation in which they may be subjected to rape, but she sees it coming and flees before it can happen.  Cassia repeatedly hints that advances were made upon her.  When speaking to her mother Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), she notes that since Titus took power, the men in power assume they can take whatever they want.

This all does not, however, hinder her from allowing her father to leave her alone with the senator at her family's party.  Cassia knows that she must do as the senator says, or it will mean trouble for her family and her family's plans.  She thinks she can handle him herself.  Aurelia, on the other hand, thinks she should have a chaperone and begins to go to the balcony.  She assures the senator she wants nothing to do with Rome, especially in returning there, but he offers his hand in marriage, which is a great political move on her family's part, but she will not relinquish her dignity, nor her choice.  "Senator Corvus, I believe you have mistaken me for the kind of woman who drapes herself across your lap in Rome."  But her refusal only makes him want her more.  He wants to tame her, to break her.  He wants Pompeii.

Cassia saves Milo from Corvus...again

Cassia's horse goes crazy, as any animal would before a volcano is about to erupt.  Because they see the signs before our dumb asses can.  Cassia and Milo bond over horses when he calms her horse down.  She rides out with him, for some reason, to the cliffs overlooking the city, only to be pursued.  She tells him to escape on horseback, and he declines, knowing full well what the repercussions might be on her.  Cassia saves Milo from certain death at the hands of Corvus big shining sword.  She can save him, and she can save herself.  She refuses to be the typical damsel in distress.  When led through the streets of Pompeii, post-eruption by Corvus, she frees herself from shackles.  She doesn't wait for Milo to help her.  She takes action immediately.  Cassia tries to overthrow her captor and later defends Milo as Corvus attack from behind.  And when they reach the outskirts of the city and know they can't both make it on one horse, he tells her to ride on without him.  She refuses to leave him.  So they send the horse off and stay and kiss, solidified in time by fiery ash.

Senator Corvus (Sutherland) considers his options
Cassia continues to defy him throughout the movie.  As he orders the execution of the clear winners in the gladiator ring, one being Milo, she signals they be saved, trumping his execution signal, much to the delight of the Pompeiians.   He's forced to stop, but he grabs Cassia.  Aurelia makes a move towards them and ceases when Corvus threatens to kill her if she doesn't sit, all while Severus (Jared Harris) does nothing but gape because he's a worthless coward.  Cassia brilliantly tells him that Corvus would make Milo a martyr if he killed him and if he reversed the decision to keep him alive, he'd be seen as weak with a wife who does not obey his will.  "I may become your wife, but you will never break me," she seethes.  But he still wants that obstacle: "But I will break you, and you will stay broken, to stand, sit, or crawl, as I decree.  Do you understand me?"  With that, the volcano shakes Pompeii, and he orders Cassia be held prisoner.  Aurelia looks at her husband like he's worse than Corvus for letting him do all this without saying anything and rightfully so.
Not only is Cassia a notable female figure in the movie to defy the standards, her mother is, too.  During Cassia's parents' party, Cassia meets eyes once again with Milo, who's being displayed for prostitution and live modeling.  Well, Aurelia notices the intense gaze between the two and never says anything to anyone.  She allows (and therefore supports?) their relationship to happen: a relationship between a noble woman and a slave man.  Perhaps she thinks that slaves are just that and, like those who choose the slaves for sexual adventures, thinks them exotic treats.  But she doesn't seem to be, as she never makes a big deal of it.

Aurelia keeps cool while Severus (Harris) wigs out.

Aurelia not only wants her daughter to be happy, she wants her to be safe.  She's the brains behind her marriage and her husband's plans to give Pompeii a much-needed facelift, starting with a new arena, bathhouses and aqueducts.  When Severus wonders why Corvus would be taken aback by Severus asking about the new emperor, Aurelia responds, "He's a politician.  Be careful what you say to him."  She knows.  All  noble women know.  And Severus asks if she thinks if they can do with him.  She suggests, "He wouldn't be here if the emperor wasn't interested."  Obviously he seeks her wisdom, so he must place great value in her.  She holds her head high, face stoic, as he furrows his brow in worry.  Unfortunately nothing she does can save them because the senator is such an ass...and also the volcanic eruption that will kill them all.

As the volcano erupts, and Aurelia is trapped beneath rubble, she orders her yet capable husband to kill the unconscious Corvus.  But he's not unconscious.  He stabs Severus, and Severus and Aurelia die in each others' arms, knowing that their daughter is not safe from Corvus or the volcano.  Aurelia tried her best.  She could not hold sway if dead, so she stayed alive.  She held sway over her own fearful husband in matters of state.  She raised her daughter like her, only more outspoken.

These women are examples of what action movies could have for female characters.  No, this isn't a great movie, by any means, but it was a great start for women's roles in blockbuster action films.  Under better lead actors, the movie would have been more endearing.  But even more crucial, under better writing, the movie would been...better.

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