Monday, January 16, 2006


Roman epic proves a little vexing

15.01.06Reviewed by Frances Grant

After years of reality telly, the sight of legions of actors strolling about in draperies declaiming lines dripping with fatefulness comes as a shock to the system. TV One's Sunday night miniseries Empire (8.30pm) is an old-school sword and sandals epic, a genre that these days has its work cut out for it avoiding coming off as high camp or pure cheese. No expense has been spared in this US$33 million ($47.3 million) costume drama, which in last night's opening instalment offered a cast of thousands (well enough to make a mob, anyway), sumptuous villas, imposing marble temples, lush Italian rural vistas, and of course, a catacomb or two for good measure.

The six-hour miniseries has even managed to drum up a reasonably coherent story, complete with voiceovers from a vestal virgin, laden with breathless portent: "The fate of the Empire will fall upon one man", we were told at the start and, to bring us back next week, "All the world hinges on the outcome".

Unfortunately, much of the script sounds like Shakespeare updated as a language exercise by a college English class. The result can be oddly disconcerting, like this greeting from Julius Caesar: "Noble Cicero! Just read your latest". History students certainly should not rely on its account of the death of the Roman Republic as material for assignments. The hero is the fictional Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), a slave and gladiator whose slice'n'dice skills were established in the drama's bloody opening scenes in the Colosseum. The story follows Tyrannus as he struggles to fulfil his promise to the dying Julius Caesar to protect his nephew and heir, Octavius, who, the history books tells us, became the great Emperor Augustus. At this stage in the drama though, it is hard to see the lad has that much leadership potential, perhaps because picturesque actor Santiago Cabrera plays him just like one of those spoiled rich kids from The OC.

The drama also wears its political sympathies on its toga. It portrays the dictatorial Caesar as a noble man concerned only with the welfare of the Roman people, while the Senate defenders of the republic are seen as low, conniving, whining politicians. The history may be dodgy and the continuity lacking - in one scene Julius Caesar had a chat with Tyrannus which started in the dead of night and suddenly shifted to broad daylight - but Empire manages to be mildly entertaining, even if it can't quite avoid those pitfalls of toga party-camp and epic cheese. So far, it has had some great trimmings - a bucket of goats' blood as a portent on the Ides of March, a vestal virgin whose maidenhood looks as shaky as the republic, an oh-so-Oedipal attachment between Brutus and his mum, and Brutus has great, sticky-out ears, the sort that look as if they could be detachable for lending. Those hoping the show will really get stuck into some cliches of life in the Roman Empire, should not be disappointed by next week's instalment. On the bill: a slap-up orgy in Marc Anthony's villa, followed by the assassination of everyone by placing poisonous snakes in their beds. It always pays to leave before the tailend of the party.


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