TV REVIEW: THE BORGIAS
POSTED 4:03pm | 07 APRIL 2011
Oscar winning Irish film writer and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With The Vampire, Michael Collins) marks his first foray into television with The Borgias, Showtime's latest high profile series about the Italian Renaissance Papacy of Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander VI and the evils committed by him and his family in the name of power and wealth.
The 95 minute premiere episode, essentially the first two episodes edited together, were written and directed by Neil Jordan himself and star Jeremy Irons (The Mission, Dead Ringers, Die Hard: With A Vengeance) as Rodrigo Borgia. It begins with the death of Pope Innocent VIII and the resultant election for the new Pope by the College of Cardinals of which Rodrigo is hell-bent on winning at any cost. He employs his son Cesare Borgia (François Arnaud, J'ai tué ma mère, Les grandes chaleurs), himself a Bishop, to set about bribing as many of the Cardinals as possible in secret to vote for him in the election to secure the Papacy. After a number of rounds of voting fail to deliver the necessary majority to any candidate Cesare's bribes finally deliver a slim victory to his father, allowing Rodrigo to be crowned Pope. The rest of the premiere concerns the aftermath of the election and the attempts by rival Cardinals to overthrow or remove the new Pope by any means - from canon law to attempted murder.
The Story Of The Premiere Episode
After securing the role of Pope, Rodrigo begins to feel the weight of his position heavily, desiring to become a better man than he was and to seek God's forgiveness, much to the surprise of his son Cesare who had just helped him buy his way into office. A number of plots spring up from rival Cardinals to remove the new Pope, chiefly by Giuliano Della Rovere (Colm Feore, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 24) by exploiting canon law, and Orsino Orsini (Derek Jacobi, I, Claudius, Cadfael, Gladiator, The King's Speech) by employing an assassin to poison him. With his family now at arms length and threats to his Papacy and life, Rodrigo must turn his back on his new-found piousness and return to his old ways to protect himself, his family, and their power and wealth.
The focus is primarily on Rodrigo and Cesare, their relationship, and their actions in service of the church and their family, and both Irons and Arnaud deliver excellent performances befitting their billing. It's clear that they will be the central figures of the show that much of the story will revolve around, though both Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Grainger, Fukunaga's Jane Eyre), Cesare's young sister, and Juan Borgia (David Oakes, The Pillars Of The Earth) his impetuous younger brother, are given strong introductions that set-up potential future conflicts and story arcs.
Oscar winning costume designer Gabriella Pescucci (The Age Of Innocence, Les Miserables (1998), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999), Charlie And The Chocolate Factory) has done another brilliant job with exceptional and detailed period costumes that give extra life to the sets and performances, with Irons coronation Papal costume a particular standout. Music is composed by Emmy winner Trevor Morris (The Tudors, The Pillars Of The Earth), and yet again he provides a perfect balance of thoughtful atmospheric background music and rousing score to underline each passage in the story. In fact, the entire production is so full of talent that it would be hard to think, whatever the critical or audience response to The Borgias, that it won't receive multiple nominations come the awards season, such is the quality of the work on show.
What holds it all together, though, is clearly Neil Jordan's direction. He has such a control over the pacing, performances, and his own vision that you feel immediately comfortable watching the action on screen. I never once questioned a shot, a scene, a performance, an edit, or the writing - nor should I have considering his experience and past success in film - and it seems he's grasped what makes good television rather quickly for a first attempt. What will be interesting is how influential he is on future episodes when he inevitably brings in the other series writers and directors, but for the premiere episode the production was near faultless.
Yeah, I pretty much love the start that The Borgias has made. It has a much more serious vibe to it than the similar The Tudors without losing any of the political intrigue, sex, violence, or drama that has become the standard for these types of shows, which leaves me feeling more like I'm watching a period drama rather than a period soap opera, but with none of the over-the-top camp and stilted language. It's the balance between all the conventions of all the genres it straddles that make it both a more meaty offering than these shows usually offer, but with all the modern improvements we've come to expect recently.
I'm fully expecting some criticism to come of the relative tameness of both the intrigue, and the sex and violence, but anyone who knows about what the Borgia family did historically shouldn't be too concerned about where the show is going - there is plenty more murder, sex, and scheming to come. What I got from the way the characters and story were "slightly held back" is that Jordan clearly knows where he wants to end up, and wants to give the characters room to move when it comes to their truly dastardly deeds. There was plenty of foreshadowing going on, but it is clear that there is no race to get the the juiciest bits by the third episode. It's a slow-burner and a character piece, which hopefully means that by the end of the series the journey the audience is taken on will have far more resonance and weight. I know I'm really excited by the tone and approach taken by Jordan and the production crew, as this could easily have been a weekly dose of over-the-top debauchery and villainous eyebrow twitching of which we have plenty of already. Instead we have a much more thoughtful and considered show that seems to have more in common with The Sopranos and Damages than The Tudors and Camelot.
Watch list: Guaranteed full season