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!
on 25 August 2011
It is 1492 Columbus has just discovered the America's, Ferdinand and Isabella have kicked the moors out of Spain, and with the pope on his deathbed Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) makes a power play to ascend to the Holy See. The stage is set for another Showtime historical Drama.
Coming off the back of the very successful Tudors series (even Henry ran out of wives in the end), Showtime have stuck with their audience and lavished the Borgia's with the big budget treatment. The story will be less familiar here in the UK, but in Renaissance Italy the Borgia's were a dynastic family (from Spain), contemporaries of the Medici's and Machiavelli. The tag line for the series is `The original crime family' and with good reason - Rodrigo and his family will stop at nothing in their quest for temporal and spiritual power, even Tony Soprano could admire their black manoeuvres, indeed the family's reputation for ruthlessness inspired Mario Puzo's to mold the characters featured in "The Godfather" after the real life Borgia's, yet like Tony they have to grapple with the reality of their actions.
The first season runs to just nine episodes, setting the stage, inviting us into Renaissance Italy, and introducing the players. The premiere starts with the death of the reigning Pope, which leaves a vacancy that ambitious Cardinal Rodrigo (Irons) intends to claim at any price. Through back room deals and other nefarious deeds, Rodrigo ascends to power while making a firm enemy of Cardinal Della Rovere (a solid Colm Feore)--an act that will have long range repercussions as the exiled Cardinal aligns with outside forces to unseat the Pope. Appointing his eldest son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) as a Cardinal, second son Juan (David Oakes) to military leadership, and arranging an advantageous marriage for daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger)--the Pope is moves to shore up his political position. In the game of great families each child is a chess piece moved for advantage, and must grapple with playing their part as they deal with personal drama, danger, romance, and intrigue.
As the duel plays out with Cardinal Della Rovere, each side reaches out for allies to crush the other, and this is a primary story arc as the season reaches its conclusion.
"The Borgias" is a terrific technical production, and I'm sure owes plenty to the experienced gained from producing the Tudors. The sets, costumes, and period details all look great - while I'm sure an historian would pick holes in the lack of dirt, grime and warts, this is entertainment so why make it ugly? The action sequences, especially when it comes to the battlefield, are tense and brutal--with superb effects. The screenplays are smart, like the Tudors the action is tweaked, condensed and emphasised to wrap it into accessible one hour episodes, but there's also the slow build up of events and actual character development that heightens the impending drama.
I wasn't that impressed with Irons portrayal of Rodrogo as so sure and uncompromising in everything, that I'm not sure that it gives much depth. Arnaud has a quiet intensity as, perhaps, the show's most intriguing and complex character. And Grainger has a subtlety that I loved, developing from a complete innocent to a power player that's great to watch.
In essence you should know what you're getting here - an historical drama with the full range of perspectives on the human condition in the 15th century. The explicit sinfulness of the Pope may raise a few eyebrows, but hey folks it's a well documented historical fact and does make the show what it is. If you're ok with that you should enjoy the show.
It's not a completely convincing historical re-enactment with 100% fidelity to the life of the times, it's not trying to be, but it's damn good entertainment, and we've really enjoyed the story so far, just leaving the question - does power corrupt, or is corruption powerful?
Having purchased this series way back in 2012, I watched it again quite recently and found it better the second
time around. The real Borgias were a product of their time, but to give the series "The Original Crime Family"
appellation seems to be just an attention grabbing device, What about the early Roman crime families?
That said, I thought Jeremy Irons played the part of Pope Alexander Sextus reasonably well, though for me, it
was Francois Arnaud's interpretation of Cesare that hit the spot, along with David Oakes playing Juan, they
carried the story along in actually being able to do the evil deeds. Whilst the Pope was at times laconic and
simply a scheming randy old man. Sean Harris as Micheletto the assassin was excellent in his role.
The costumes and cinematography were excellent, the music quite good, but having the slightly upbeat version
of Zadok The Priest by Handel at the Coronation of the Pope was somewhat out of place. Pope Borgia died in
1503 and Handel was not even born until 1685 ! No doubt the musical director was plumping for effect rather
I enjoyed the series overall.
3 Episodes of 46 minutes per disc
on 2 discs.
Subtitled in English
With Extra Features.
Corruption on high, debauchery, treachery, much slaughter - what gifts for a major television series! The notorious Borgias would seem ideal. The 1981 version thought it was on to a winner, but proved ludicrous and invited ridicule. This 2011 production also disappoints, the reasons different.
Visually, it is a stunner - sumptuous sets a treat for the eye. Battle scenes are spectacular, horrifying too, especially when those chained cannon balls cause so much carnage. Sadly, though, it is not enough simply to look good. The script (several times in the bonuses described as "beautiful") is all too often heavy handed, bogged down with words - scenes dragging on when key points could have been far more deftly made. The acting also proves uneven. Most unexpectedly Jeremy Irons fails to impress, his character prone to prolonged actory utterances. Other key characters (daughter included) fail to make necessary impact. Cesare has charisma, the Pope's wife and mistress appealing dignity. Although somewhat over-colourful, the King of France at least makes his presence felt. Some of the best acting occurs in smaller roles - not least Sean Harris as assassin Micheletto - he simply IS whom he plays, totally credible.
Generally interesting bonuses also can prove cumbersome. Note that Q&A section. Why so often the need to press keys for the next bit? Why not simply "PLAY ALL"? (On a more lighthearted note, there are recipes inspired by leading Borgias. It is tempting to observe, given their track record, each course seems to lack a certain ingredient.)
Critics declare the show over-hyped. I did not wish to believe them but have now to agree. "The Original Crime Family"? So far at least, the Borgias are not a patch on the "I, Claudius" lot. Nor, indeed, is the production. In 1976 the "I, Claudius" twelve episodes held a nation enthralled, the series still hailed as a model of its kind.
Many valuable lessons may be learned from television epics that also tried.
on 16 January 2016
Great series. The drama and costumes are very good. The settings and extras, I feel, give the piece a good feel for the period. The city streets and buildings and filled with activity. The only weak area are the armies, cannons and battles which reveal its limitations. But given that I was watching it for the manoeuvring between the various characters and states which kept one interested through out the series and in fact all three series. I am sad they could not keep going.
These Americans/Canadians are really stepping up their game with how TV series are shot. There's Spartacus, Camelot, this - all with presumably large budgets and tackling folklore or historical fact in a way that was only ever seen in a movie previously.
Not everyone will love this show - it's really not that graphic (in comparison to Spartacus: Blood and Sand/Gods of the Arena) but don't tune in hoping to see a whiter than white Pope. There's sex, violence, plotting, battles, etc. Basically a reasonably accurate depiction of life during this time - the Pope was 'king of kings' and Borgia was all about gaining power by trying to bribe others or marry off his family into the different Italian provinces.
As someone else said, Jeremy Irons is ok. He plays the role in a very subdued way, he's always very contemplative but I quite like it.
It's very interesting as I previously wasn't too aware of this period in time. From the Wikipedia entry on the House of Borgia, it would appear that the producers have taken some artistic licence as Giulia Farnese and Lucrezia were actually a lot younger than is portrayed in the show.
It's all very cloak and daggers - religion is but an after-thought and way of keeping people under control.
The series ends well with the promise of more but it seemed to accelerate time quite quickly towards the final episode.
Well if you did here comes THE BORGIAS and it does take itself very seriously, with much of the same creatives on board as The Tudors, especially the very talented composer Trevor Morris, this first season starts with the Election of Jeremy Irons as Pope.
I enjoyed The Tudors but often felt it lurched into parody and fantasy, something that The Borgias seems to studiously avoid.
The series has the look and feel of an expensive movie and on the cold dark nights of winter will make a great Christmas present for a friend or family member who is smart enough to know that not all TV is documentary, but a well made well structured drama that has the feel of realism is a great treat.
on 24 September 2015
At first glance, The Borgias has all the hallmarks of a project that could go horribly wrong: Jeremy Irons camping it up in the Vatican, scheming minxes baring their breasts, backstabbing courtiers, dodgy Italian accents and even dodgier mullets. This could have made The Tudors look like The Barchester Chronicles.
Had I seen this on ITV 2 on a Tuesday night, I wouldn't have been surprised in the least...
And yet, it works. Stylish, with some great cinematography, great locations, and a surprisingly good turn from Irons, who is clearly enjoying himself.
Historically, it's as about as accurate as a blindfolded man with a gun trying to hit a mosquito at fifty paces, but entertainment should always take precedence above historical accuracy.
on 3 January 2012
"The Borgias" is not just another historical drama and while it may be chatty or slow at times, its opulent production perfectly captures the flamboyance of the Renaissance period while its stellar regular and guest cast breathe life into the characters, most of whom have to share screentime due to the crowded ensemble and the complexity of the political-social-financial-religious state of the times.
Scripts by Neil Jordan are not flawlessly accurate but still provide a unique peek to the lives of the characters without passing judgement or reproducing the most common salacious rumours about the notorious dynasty. Characters are rendered sympathetic and even relatable even though the show retains an entertainingly scathing, sarcastic, ironic and cartoony style that aims at the hypocricy and self-righteousness of the Church while successfully avoiding the usual soap-opera shenanigans.
When it needs to be dark, the show doesn't shy away from it and neither does it apologise, with gore and nudity being treated with a tasteful subtlety, measure and understatement to respect the viewer and elevate it above the usual "sex and blood" treatment of most -if not all- historical epics.
The cast list speaks for itself: the inimitable Jeremy Irons leads as Rodrigo Borgia a team consisting of brilliant newcomer Francois Arnaud as Cesare (who carries the show more than a few times), the lovely Holliday Grainger as the alternatively innocent and angelic/calculating and devious Lucrezia Borgia, the reliable David Oakes as the messy Juan along with excellent veterans such as Joanne Whalley, Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, Steven Berkoff, Gina McKee, Ronan Vibert, Michel Muller and featuring groundbreaking performances from Colm Feore as Borgia nemesis, Della Rovere, and Sean Harris as the family's hired killer, Micheletto.
on 3 January 2012
Forget historical correctness. As with the series Rome and The Tudors, do not expect exactness of historical reportage. Enjoy a thoroughly good yarn of intrigue, sexual scandal, political machinations, thuggery and religious hypocrisy set in an invented medieval Italy. A few of the central characters are weak in performance, but this is just a personal view. Watch out for the dishy Cesare Borgia, who bears a striking resemblance to Henry Cavill (Charles Brandon) in the Tudors. J Irons is a fantastic Pope which he carries off with a play of santimonious piety and wry humour. King Charles of France is also hilarious (his accent was a bit odd, did I detect a hint of Irish?) and the battle enactment is a good summary of siege warfare at that time. Looking forward to Season 2.