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Great Acting & Cinematography; Solid Writing
on 30 October 2011
There is a great deal to admire in this series. Visually it is superb. The costuming and sets manage simultaneously to be both beautiful and realistic to the period; or at least, they seem so to my untutored eye. The actors uniformly do an extraordinarily good job. So much so that it is difficult to know whom to focus upon in this review, because whatever choices I make I will be omitting mention of some truly outstanding performances.
However, I am going to begin in the obvious place: with Jeremy Irons' interpretation of Rodrigo Borgia. I do so if only because so much hinges on this pivotal character. The Telegraph critic Rachel Ray criticised this series on the grounds that it "lacks the amoral aura of a psychopathic family", and specifically criticised Irons' own performance as "disappointingly undiabolical". On a strictly literal level Ray's perception of this series is entirely accurate. However, I would argue that it also entirely misses the point.
The Rodrigo Borgia we find in this show was never intended as an inhuman monster who would not have been out of place cackling maniacally atop Snake Mountain. Rather, what we gaze upon here is far closer to the true face of evil as it most often exists in the real world: ordinary, resigned in the face of the dictates of Realpolitik, and when confronted with the moral reality of where such dictates lead, by turns a true believer, actively self deluding, and at times even self doubting. Not unlike a concentration camp guard who can go home at night and be a loving father to his children. I am very much reminded here of political theorist Hannah Arendt's famous phrase "the banality of evil". It would be doing a great disservice both to Irons' individual performance and to the moral complexities of this series more generally to suggest that everything could be summed up entirely in such straightforward terms. Nevertheless, we would at least have the comfort of being considerably closer to the human reality of what "The Borgias" sets out to achieve than whatever it is Ray was expecting - apparently some kind of costumed remake of The Godfather.
Rodrigo Borgia aside, there are many more truly outstanding performances in this series than I can realistically go into here. It is worth saying that François Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, and David Oaks all do outstanding jobs in their respective rolls as Rodrigo Borgia's adult children. Sean Harris, although in a relatively minor role as Cesare Borgia's assasin, is also very much worthy of mention. While his performance is extremely minimalist, he somehow manages to achieve a great deal while apparently doing very little. I find myself genuinely left wondering what goes on behind those eyes. It must take an enormous amount of skill to suggest so much with so little.
Unusually for a "quality drama", if this series has a weakness it is in the writing. Don't get me wrong: the writing is good. It's just that it never manages to be more than "good". It doesn't achieve the same standard as the other aspects of the production. If I could sum up my reservations about the writing in a single sentence it would be simply this: it does not surprise me. I say that from the perspective of someone with a very slight nodding acquaintance with the history of the period, although no more than that. But to be clear, when I talk of not being surprised, I'm not just talking about the specific events that take place. It's more that there is a decided absence of moments where I find myself thinking "Gee they did that well"! In fact, there are no such moments at all until relatively late in the piece when the French King (once again played impeccably, in this case by Michael Muller) arrives on the stage. And even then, the surprises - those "wow" moments - are few and far between, and as a rule are rather mild.
Still... it's not like the writing is bad or anything. It's good. Solid... If perhaps just a tiny bit predictable. Actually, this series is at its most unsettling when it communicates with us on a purely sensual level with sound and vision, cannons blazing. In this case literally so.
And speaking of the French, one curiosity of this series is that despite being an international production with an international cast, all of the Italian characters not only speak English, they are made to do so with very pronounced English accents. Of course, when the French get involved, they too all speak exclusively in English - although in their case they speak English with French accents! It's little touches like this that remind us that despite its superficial mundane realism, television is ultimately about communicating ideas, and finally a story, to an audience. I suppose I just find it interesting how readily, perhaps even unthinkingly, we as an audience accept such methods of communication.
That particular curiosity and my reservations about the writing aside, this is still absolutely something I'd recommend seeing. And I am most definitely waiting with baited breath for season two!