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Non-Review Review: Mongol

I caught this foreign gem playing on Sky Premier today. I’d actually heard quite a bit about it while it was playing at the IFI last year, but most of it was mixed enough that I put off catching it in the cinema. The movie – following the rise of Genghis Khan – is a historical epic of the kind that Hollywood doesn’t really make any more – and I mean that as both a compliment and a criticism. It isn’t as utterly brilliant as those who praise it claim, nor is it as bad as its detractors would have you believe.

A Khan not to messed with...

A Khan not to be messed with...

There’s a lot to like here. The cinematography is top notch, giving us glowing and beautiful panoramas of various vistas – from crisp white snow to green grasslands to arid desert, this is really a film that warrants a High Definition viewing experience. It really is a breathtakingly beautiful film, in the way that a myth or legend (as most of the history of the character) deserves to be. The choreography of the fight scenes is equally impressive, seeming both brutal and ethereal at the same time.

The history of Khan (or Temujin as he was during most of the film) is shrouded in enough hearsay and mystery that most of the dramatic liberties the writers and director have taken with the material can be excused – and it remains, for the most part, true to the core of the character. There are various points (mostly near the end) where the movie deviates from various versions of the story I have heard in ways that seem mostly pointless and occasionally seem inferior. Still, the changes that have been made are easily excused, and they aren’t the biggest problem the film faces.

The film has a problem that most historical epics that aren’t incredible focused tend to have: there’s no sense of scale. And I don’t mean that in terms of the visual elements – the battles are fantastically shot, as I observed above – I am talking about the way that time is portrayed. There are occasionally introductions that lets us know what has elapsed, but for the most part we are left to try to figure out how long the character has spent in his current predicament. In fairness, the film remains focused (but does gloss over various key passages in a line or two – apparently it’s easy to amass an incredibly vast army in ancient Mongolia) and manages to do well fitting a third of such a vast and eventful life into two hours. 

It’s a well-made film made with fantastic visual flair. It’s a call back to the old days when historical epics were the norm and it’s a welcome addition to the genre – indeed, it puts most modern attempts by Hollywood to shame. It isn’t perfect by any means, but if you’re in any way intrigued by the man or the myth, or just want an old-fashioned swords-and-sandals epic, you’d be very lucky to do better.

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