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Angelina Jolie's Cleopatra project sparks carry-on

Yet another film about Cleopatra is proposed, this time focusing on her qualities as a leader and warrior. However, the casting of Angelina Jolie as the Egyptian queen has caused some controversy.

Thwack! A Roman soldier goes flying off the back of the Great Sphinx as Cleopatra lands a solid, sandalled foot in his belly. Kapow! A swift uppercut sees another sword-toting legionnaire sent spinning to the sand below.

Clad in shimmering white, gold-laced robes and some fierce-looking tattoos, the Egyptian queen bounds to the top of the mysterious beast's head, slides down its nose (knocking a significant chunk off the side) and lands directly on the saddled back of a waiting camel below, which slowly trots off into the sunset.

Before you start thumbing through your Egyptian history books, please be aware that this is all nonsense. But when one hears that Angelina Jolie is set to play Cleopatra in a film to be directed, it is said, by Bourne's Paul Greengrass, the imagination can easily run wild.

Historically, the Queen of the Nile hasn't had such a Jolie-esque, domineering presence on screen. Despite controlling an empire that stretched across almost the entire eastern Mediterranean, on celluloid she has been portrayed as little more than a sultry temptress with a penchant for hiding in carpets and wearing terrifying amounts of eyeliner.

Treatments range from Elizabeth Taylor's as perhaps the most familiar, in Cleopatra (1963), all the way down to the indignity of Carry On Cleo (1964) with Amanda Barrie as the queen, Sid James as Mark Antony and Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar.

But everyone from Shakespeare to Shaw has painted Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII to her mother) as defined by her beauty. Her name has been dragged through the sand since Cicero put reed pen to papyrus.

This image is set to change with a new, improved, 21st-century biopic. Indeed, it's hard to believe that Jolie would have accepted a script that had her fluttering her false eyelashes at Julius Caesar or ironing Mark Antony's toga.

The new film - which is due for release in 2013 - is based on a new biography of Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning author attempts to disentangle the queen from the myths that have cloaked her for so long.

According to Schiff, Cleopatra was a girl who could "build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine", "the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and play a role in western affairs". So not just international arm-candy for Julius and Mark, then.

While she may have been born with a Ptolemaic cutlery drawer of silver spoons in her mouth, Cleopatra was, says Schiff, resourceful, extremely clever and "for a fleeting moment held the fate of the western world in her hands".

Scott Rudin, the biopic's producer, claims that the film will be a much more grown-up, sophisticated version than previous efforts. "In the Joseph Mankiewicz movie, Elizabeth Taylor is a seductress," he told Variety. "But the histories of Cleopatra have been written by men. This is the first to be written by a woman."

Finally, then, Jolie appears to be doing something to appease her naysayers (ie, most women). Alas, as ever, she can't please everyone, and her casting has seen another issue rear its head: race. Almost as soon as her name was linked with the film, the blogosphere erupted over the notion of Jolie joining Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Claudette Colbert and numerous others on a list of white women playing the Egyptian queen.

"Honestly, I don't care how full Angelina Jolie's lip are, how many African children she adopts or how bronzed her skin will become for the film, I firmly believe this role should have gone to a black woman," said a writer for Essence magazine online, suggesting Vanessa Williams, Halle Berry or Thandie Newton for the role.

The debate rages on. But when Jolie's Queen reaches screens two years from now, don't expect her to be lounging around in ass's milk all the time. Surely there has to be at least one tightly-choreographed fight scene. After all, it is going to be filmed in 3D.

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