Good intentions and hopes of Oscar bait aside, biographical movies often crumble under the strain of compressing an entire life into an easily digestible two-hour chunk. Alejandro Amenábar's pumped-up historical epic Agora gets the trappings right but never really manages to transcend its formula, despite a heroic performance by Rachel Weisz as a woman truly ahead of her time.
Opening with an eye-popping CGI re- creation of fourth-century Egypt, the story centers on Hypatia, a forward-thinking philosopher and teacher who attempts to suss out the secrets of the universe while the surrounding conflict between Alexandria's Christians and pagans grows increasingly bloody. Director/cowriter Amenábar, whose previous films The Others and The Sea Inside reveled in intimate detail, here takes his heroine's astrological obsession as an opportunity to go full-tilt macro, beginning many shots from somewhere out in space before swooshing into close-up. While this Google Earth approach impresses on the first and second (and possibly even the fifth) go-round, it eventually tips over into bombast. (Portraying the Christians as an unruly mob of black-robed sneerers doesn't really help on the subtlety front, either.) Despite a few moments of inspiration—Weisz's response to a potential suitor is a truly epic dis—it clings tenaciously to the surface level.
What does work is mainly due to Weisz, an actress whose ludicrous beauty often threatens to eclipse her genuine chops. Without ever lapsing into saintliness, she gives her all at depicting her character's stubborn spark, even when the narrative lets her down. (In standard biopic fashion, the heroine's significant discoveries are reduced to a series of eureka moments during unrelated dialogue scenes.) Weisz's yeoman efforts aside, Amenábar's sweepingly ambitious film never quite figures out how to do justice to its intriguing central figure. It's a story worth telling that could probably stand another try.