Rome, BBC2

by | Nov 2, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

A stark but gripping portrayal of the last days of Rome, projected with all the austere authority of the British theatre.

What to say if you didn’t like it

A licentious cross between Albion Market and Carry On Up The Tiber.

What was good about it?

• A cast of characters with real depth. Even though the two most charismatic protagonists – Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) – have a morality that would make Goebbels blush (Lucius ordered the crucifixion of Gauls without batting an eyelid, while Titus delightfully thrust a dagger through the throat of a citizen who was trying to cheat him), they are an engaging anti-hero double act much like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

• Atia (Polly Walker), meanwhile, is the Alexis Colby of the tragedy. Utterly without scruples, she vainly tries to marry off her already wedded daughter to the oafish Pompey and sends her teenage son on a mission deep into Gaul all but unprotected.

• It’s always a good sign for a drama when you keenly anticipate almost anyone from the whole cast appearing on screen. Alongside, Lucius, Titus and Atia, Mark Antony (James Purefoy), when not raping shepherdesses, is preening and trying to take power with sycophancy and charm.

• And they were all introduced practising their favourite hobby – Lucius was giving orders, Titus was killing, Atia was seducing, Julius Caesar was subjugating peasants, Pompey was blustering and Octavian was being obnoxious.

• The opening battle scene where Lucius’s legion is seen crushing the last of the Gaul resistance, but his plans are almost undone by Titus’s bravado and indiscipline. However, the way Lucius kept blowing his whistle made him look a little like a flustered PE teacher umpiring a particularly rough game of murderball in Scum.

• Even the humour worked. Lucius and Titus exchanged sharp banter, while the casual, almost bored, fashion with which Lucius skewered Pompey’s agent with a javelin was reminiscent of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones guns down the ostentatious swordsman.

• The subtle allusions to contemporary culture. Pompey tries to coerce Caesar into resigning because of allegations of murder, torture, tyranny and theft as he brutally conquered the Gauls. Whereas modern day oppressor George W Bush merely thrusts a metaphorical bloody fist into foreign lands through the proxy of ultra high-tech fighter bombers.

What was bad about it?

• There was so much sex that it seemed not to be faithful to the whip of historical accuracy but more so to the notorious 1979 Roman romp – Caligula. It got so ubiquitous that if the brattish Octavian had burst a spot, pus wouldn’t have squirted out but a crown of jittery sperm grappling to breach an egg.

• The prevalence of the aristocratic English accent to signify Roman nobility, most uncomfortably observed in Brutus who sounded as if he had stopped off for a few terms at Eton on his way back from Gaul.

• The ritual slaughter of the bull, whose blood then soaked the grateful Atia seemed to be a standard of Roman decadence, but actually felt like a clumsy, artificial addendum to the spectacular narrative.

• The rather cheap soap opera moment when Lucius returns home after seven years away, only to behold hid wife carrying a baby. He immediately accuses her of being “a whore”, until she tells him the infant is the child of his 13-year-old daughter. And the whole chapter provokes a rather contrived frosty resentment.

Series two Wednesday 20 June 2007

Did we like it?

Blood – check. Well drawn characters with complex, haywire moral compasses – check. Political scheming offering a cunning, often more effective alternative to the otherwise incessant ultraviolence – check. More blood – check. An hour out of our lives every Wednesday and Sunday – check.

What was good about it?

• Much like The Soparanos and Deadwood, Rome is a world in which violence is the most common, and most effective, way to resolve any disputes. And because of the instability of the New Jersey mob, frontier America or turbulent Rome, this means that characters being murdered or maimed is at least rooted in a perceived realism rather than a nauseating ratings snatcher (Hello, Emmerdale).

• And violence and death in such a setting, when allied with witty, razor-sharp dialogue and characters who the viewer cares about even though they are often amoral bastards – Al Swearengen, Tony Soprano, Mark Antony – mean that this really is TV drama of the highest order.

• Yet there is more than just violence. In the aftermath of Caesar’s death, Mark Antony’s lust for summary vengeance is cooled by the more pragmatic approach of Caesar’s named heir, the youthful Octavian. And they instead concoct a plot that ultimately sees Brutus and his cohorts sent into a bloodless exile and the power returned to the Antony/Octavian axis.

• This contrasts sharply with the underworld occupied by former comrades-in-arms Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, where violence is the only course of action to resolve quarrels as they lack the intellect and upbringing of their higher-born counterparts and also are often acting for their own short-term selfish ends rather than enduring control of an entire empire.

• The two protagonists in Rome – Mark Antony and Lucius Vorenus – are also at opposite ends of the broad spectrum of humanity, aligned only in their willingness to kill as a matter of resolving conflicts or achieving vengeance – yet this cleverly says much more about the time than it does about the individuals.

• Amoral bastard Mark Antony is delightfully played by James Purefoy and is emblematic of Rome’s desire to show characters as products of their time and so he is unburdened with the liberal morality a lesser drama may have saddled him with. Instead, without missing a heartbeat he kills one of Brutus’s thugs who had earlier threatened him, while later on he petulantly refuses to dress for Caesar’s funeral, “I will not rise until I’ve f**ked someone.”

• Purefoy expertly shows off the many layers to Antony’s soul like a peacock flushing his feathers. As part of his plot to fill the power vacuum created by Caesar’s murder by Brutus he visits his enemy and coaxes him into a diplomatic solution suggested by Octavian. “I want no more blood,” he cooed. “I want peace and stability.” And asked by the rightfully suspicious Servilia, Brutus’s mother, what he will do afterwards, he softly and sardonically claimed: “I will then retire quietly to the provinces where I will plough my fields and f**k my slaves. You people are too rough for a simple solider like me.”

• Antony unveils his megalomaniacal machinations at Caesar’s funeral during his tribute to his former liege when he seditiously rouses the crowd to his cause and mocks Brutus’s claim that he has the support of Rome’s ‘men of quality’. “I have an angry mob who will roast and eat your ‘men of quality’ in the ashes of the senate house.” And despite all of this, you can’t help loving him.

• Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) on the other hand is an impetuous, angst-ridden soul who has coerced his wife to commit suicide over her infidelity and is later seen cursing his children before he staggers off in a daze and they are kidnapped by a local gangster. The episode ends as he and Pullo hack their way through the gangster’s small army until they corner the gangster who mocks Vorenus by saying that he has raped and killed his children and tossed their bodies into the river. Vorenus responds by decapitating him and carrying his severed head through the streets.

What was bad about it?

• We noticed this in the previous series of Rome, but it’s evidently made primarily for an American audience because it panders to their historical ignorance by giving each and every character a Received Pronunciation accent, with the exception of any dishonourable working class roles who sound like the Artful Dodger’s ancient antecedent, with much the same blasé cynicism as the way news bulletins colour stories about pre-historic times with black and white film clips of cavemen.

• Octavian still sounds as if he would be more at home luxuriating in a punt on an Oxford river, while even the messenger on a horse heralding the news of Caesar’s demise was on his summer holidays from Eton.

• And why, despite every line of dialogue being spoken in English was the choral mournful wailing during Caesar’s funeral in Latin?

• While much of the dialogue is marvellous, there is still the odd phrase that comes from the amateur playwrights’ list of posh character clichéd idioms such as when Servilia greeted Antony with: “To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”

• Branded with a reputation for gratuitous bare flesh, Rome appeared to be somewhat straining to keep up with its notoriety for nudity and some scenes appeared devised simply to maintain that quotient such as when the servant drooped her breast into Caesar’s dead mouth, the “German slut” brought to service the needs of Mark Antony and the strippers in Rome’s version of Tony Soprano’s lap dancing club.

Sunday 22 July 2007

Did we like it?

A handsome finale to one of the most magnificent dramas we’ve ever seen on TV. Sadly, this episode suffered because many of the bastards, bitches and boors we’ve come to adore were despatched to the great Jovian temple in the sky with a relish not seen since the last Blake’s 7.

What was good about it?

• Kevin McKidd as Lucius Vorenus, who for most of the saga has straddled the gap between the devious politicking amongst the noble classes while also suffering from domestic trauma of his own that were sent over the edge when he drove his wife to suicide. This event inured him to the atrocities of his master Mark Antony, but he gained redemption when his estranged daughter forgave him on his deathbed.

• Ray Stevenson as Titus Pullo, for the way in which he crammed rank brutality and great comic timing into this lovable bear of a man. He was never satisfied unless he was fighting someone and came up with many inventive ways to kill his foes – biting off their tongue (“It tasted like chicken”), executing a senator after a casual chat in which he seemed more concerned about picking fruit, strangling his dying lover after she revealed she poisoned his wife – and was last seen walking through the thronging Roman streets with his son by Cleopatra at his side.

• Polly Walker as the embittered Atia. After most of the protagonists had been killed, her dignity in the face of Octavian’s wife’s sneering pomposity awarded her a kind of heroic status – even in the face of her past appalling behaviour.

• Simon Woods as Octavian Caesar made a different kind of villain, and ultimately even in the moral minefield of Rome his lack of compassion and humanity marked him out as a bad apple rotten to the core. For a start he ended up utterly triumphant after routing Antony and Cleopatra’s armies, and his calculating manner in plotting his victories made him an admirable figurehead.

• But it was Octavian’s own bafflement at the way others saw him that made him fascinating – he had to use all his cunning to convince the Roman people that the much-loved Antony deserved to be attacked in Egypt, his genuine hurt when his aloof manner was remarked upon and the way in which he selected his wife like a farmer chooses a pig at market.

• And it was his inability to appear compassionate towards the needs of Cleopatra after the death of Antony that drives her to take her own life also – “I was all sweetness and light with Cleopatra,” he remarked. “Sweetness itself.” When in reality she may have been having a conversation with an iceberg that sadistically enjoys melting away to drown polar bear cubs. While he also failed to read the grief embedded in Atia’s face when he told his mother about the death of Antony.

• The set designs embellished with CGI backdrops such as Mark Antony’s escape from his rout by Octavian. No need for a huge battle scene, all that was needed was an expression of wearied distress on the face of Antony as they bobbed up and down in a little boat and a look of stoic defiance from Vorenus and the whole tale of the conflict is told in a few seconds.

• The way in which the violence and brutality is somehow extreme yet never disturbing, as if it’s just been thrown in for cheap shock value. It’s a combination of the brilliant atmosphere which evokes a more feral era during which violence was a part of life, but also owes something to the Pulp Fiction school of violence. In the penultimate episode when Pullo bites off a rival’s tongue before embedding an axe in his torso is as guiltily hilarious as when Vincent shoots the face off a miscreant in the back of his car.

• The myriad involving subplots such as the passion between Octavian’s aide Agrippa and Octavia, which was curtailed by the vagaries of politics, but which could be revived by the death of Mark Antony (who was Octavia’s husband) and Agrippa’s ascent to the zenith of Roman social circles.

• Caesarion, the son of Cleopatra and Pullo, who thinks his father is actually Julius Caesar, and his verbose curses threatened upon Octavian for causing the death of his mother.

• The melding of modern English vernacular which are tinged with Roman imagery such as Pullo’s appraisal of Vorenus’s daughter: “Anyone misbehaves she gives them a look like Medusa on the rag.” Or Atia’s determination to appear superior to Octavian’s wife: “I don’t give a f**k what the priests say, I won’t let a little trollop like you walk in front of me!”

• And while it does take liberties with the truth – such as a simple soldier like Pullo quoting Greek mythology – it does add to the scrumptious flavour of the drama.

What was bad about it?

• In order to show his fall from grace, it was necessary for the marvellous James Purefoy to caricature all the traits that had made his Mark Antony a beguiling screen presence. From witty, pragmatic general of Rome he was reduced to an extra in a Duran Duran video replete with eyeliner and dandyish attire with an appetite for murder. His slaughter of one of Cleopatra’s courtiers for laughing when Antony was bested in duelling practice by Vorenus was a horrid cold-blooded slaying and made his later suicide less sorrowful than it had been were he still the same man who could make the assassination of a politician on his lover’s whim into a mirthful quip. Even his reaction to his realisation that he must commit suicide – “Anything to get rid of this f**king hangover” – couldn’t quite restore the fondness we once had for him.

• Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history would already be aware of the end, and even with Rome’s attention to historical veracity that makes the BBC’s conduct on phone-ins seem like the Judgment of Solomon, it meant the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra and victory for Octavian followed by a reign as one of the greatest leaders in Rome’s history.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

02/11/2005

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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