With a special focus on the villain, Artemisia, in honor of “The Great Villain Blogathon.”
300: Rise of an Empire sort of had its work cut out for it. Released long after the political and aesthetic furor over the original film had died down, with only some of the cast from the first returning (for obvious reasons), and with the signature aesthetics of its progenitor having become rather old hat, what could it have to offer spectators? Well, the politics are significantly toned down, the aesthetics are a little more polished and smooth and, fortunately for this blog, there is one key villain who steals the show and makes the film worth watching: Artemisia.
Played by the inimitable and sultry Eva Green, Artemisia has what most of the villains most problematically lacked in the first film: a justified reason for hating Greeks and wanting to gain a measure of vengeance upon them. As the film makes clear, her desire for revenge is well-founded, for her family was raped and murdered by marauding Greeks, while she was taken as a sex slave and ultimately left for dead. It was only through adoption by a Persian (the emissary so memorably pushed into the well in the first film), and his ruthless training in the arts of the sword, that she was able to gain a measure of control over her own life and eventually rise through the ranks of the Persian army.
Indeed, she rises so high that she becomes one of the Persian army’s highest officials, and she even gains the admiration of the Persian king Darius (one of the few characters, incidentally, who looks anything like what Persians of the period might have looked like). This is clearly a woman who knows what she wants out of life and is determined to do whatever it takes to ensure that she is not rendered a victim again by the world men in which she finds herself.
Indeed, as the film progresses she even comes to outperform the crown Prince Xerxes, who even falls into a deep pit of self-doubt after the death of his father. It is only at the urging of Artemisia that he is finally able to come out of his stupor and set out on the path that will strip away his humanity and leave him the God-King. It is also Artemisia, and not Xerxes, who does what is necessary, slaying anyone in the palace who might pose a threat to his burgeoning power and his desire to lead an army against the Greeks responsible for the ignominious death of his father.
As this brief description might clear, in many ways it is Artemisia that is the engine of the narrative, driving everything forward and providing a reason for what happens. It is also Artemisia who serves as the foil for the rather unexceptional Greek hero Themistocles (portrayed competently if unimaginatively by Sullivan Stapleton). Indeed, throughout the film she emerges as a character that does things, that makes things happen, while Themistokles often just responds to what happens. Thus, while he is positioned as the ostensible hero of the film, it is really Artemisia that I found myself cheering on as the movie went on. She was, in fact, one of the most interesting parts of an otherwise unexceptional film.
Part of this also has to do with the particular brand of screen presence exuded by Eva Green. In the wide variety of roles that she has taken on, she has consistently managed to gather around herself an aura of dangerous yet powerful sexuality, as a woman who knows how to use he body in a way that does not necessarily undercut her empowerment. Artemisia emerges as a woman powerful and secure enough in her military and physical prowess to not feel that sex in any way demeans her. Although Themistocles turns down her advances, she doesn’t pine and weep, but instead vows to continue her efforts to bring down the Greek fleet and attain the military victory that she so desperately desires.
As with any morality tale, however, the villain must ultimately be defeated, and so it turns out in this film. Lena Headey’s Gorgo coming in to help Themistocles save the day. Yet even Headey’s scenery chewing (which I dearly love) doesn’t take away from what has come before, and even she pales in comparison to the power wielded by Artemisia during her time in the film. (If anything, part of me wished that the two women would just join their forces and turn against the men, but that, of course, was a futile hope).
300: Rise of an Empire may not have been as politically inflammatory as its predecessor, but it does actually do a great deal, perhaps despite itself, to show us the ways in which women of the ancient world were often at the mercy of the men in their lives, who often had possessed all of the political and sexual power. While it was originally supposed to showcase the rise of Xerxes and his path to his status as the God-King of Persia, Artemisia ended up stealing much of the spotlight and the result is, I think a stronger film because of it. Now, if only we could get an epic film centered solely on a woman (perhaps Olympias, the powerful and Machiavellian mother of Alexander the Great?) then I would truly be a happy consumer. And who knows? Maybe someday I’ll get my wish.