Alejandro Amenábar, the Spanish director of ‘The Others’ and ‘The Sea Inside’, puts on his sword and sandals – and thinking cap – for this sweeping, ancient-historical drama of ideas. Current debates over religious extremism and scientific rationalism hover subtly over this fictionalisation of events surrounding the sacking of the library at Alexandria in 391 in the face of rising tension between pagans, Christians and Jews. As well as recreating the city with impressive realism and scale, Amenábar develops a compelling sense of volatility and impending violence. At the centre of it all is scientist and teacher Hypatia (a relaxed Rachel Weisz), whose musings on the place of the Earth in the universe run counter to religious dogma.
Other characters, such as Hypatia’s former slave Davus (Max Minghella) and her pupil-turned-Roman prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) are only interesting as representatives of change – and not as romantic foils. The build-up of emnity is more absorbing than its explosion and the story wanders later on, but the film’s portrayal of how religious fervour can interrupt the progress of secular knowledge is acute and welcome.