I picked up the DVD box set for this fantastic HBO-BBC co-production because after thoroughly enjoying it on its first airing, I wanted to see it again.
Costing over a hundred million dollars for the first twelve episodes, Rome charts the events from Caesar’s conquest of Gaul through to the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. The first series ends with the assassination of Julius Caesar, played with remarkable depth by Ciarán Hinds.
The whole cast is astonishingly good, with each giving a real range and warmth to their characters. Of course, the real stars are Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson as two common soldiers through whose eyes these classic parts of history are told. Their names were mentioned in passing in one of Caesar’s diaries, but in Rome they are given the major roles, often influencing history, Forrest Gump-style.
McKidd’s Lucius Vorenus is the grumpy by-the-book Good Cop, and Steven’s Titus Pullo is the rebellious scallywag who’s always getting him into trouble. Naturally, each grows and develops as the seasons progress, but the emotional realism and charm of each performance makes the whole thing come to life. Dialogue based on “olden times” can be tricky for actors to pull off, as they casually refer to ancient customs and strange practices, but all of Rome‘s actors succeed with the ease which won Oscars for Shakespeare In Love.
Good mention should be given, of course, to the content. The language is extreme – the c-word appears several times in the first episode alone – and there’s so much nudity you wonder why they bother getting dressed. Most of the violence is implied, but that which there is can be deeply unpleasant – particularly during a stomach-churning torture scene (one of several, in fact). Of the lot, it’s really only the nudity that’s completely gratuitous, and even that’s forgiveable in the context. It’s a terribly realistic series and they don’t shy away from any part of that. Just be warned: do NOT watch with mother.
Polly Walker, as Atia of the Julii, is a truly monstrous creation – an ancient incarnation of Dynasty‘s Alexis Colby. She schemes and manipulates all around her – not least her strange and cruel son Octavian (who becomes Caeasar Augustus, after whom the month “August” is named), and his put-upon sister Octavia. Atia is so wonderfully horrible that it makes you feel sorry for the real Atia, who was said to be a pious and rather pleasant woman. Max Pirkis plays the young Octavion and Simon Woods his older self in the second season, and they’re great casting choices. Again, the whole cast is great, and it’s gratifying to see non-surgically-enhanced mature women in very strong and sexy roles.
It’s really difficult to fault Rome – it actually gets better as it moves into the second series, and careers along at a fair old pace pulling together the twin plots of two of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays. The scenes with Vorenus and Pullo and their families are great, too – really selling the idea of ordinary life under the old republic, and the confusion at such immense political change through the eyes of the common people.
Sadly, the series was cancelled after two seasons, so the subsequent three seasons had to be abandoned (the fifth, apparently, would have featured the rise of a certain religious leader). Much of the content of the subsequent series was crammed into the second season, hence the replacement of Octavian with an older actor and the breathless pacing of events.
Many were bemused by the ending of a well-watched and critically-acclaimed show, despite its enormous expense. It’s rumoured that HBO regretted their decision when they saw the quality of the scripts for the second series. There’s word of a spin-off film, which would be interesting to see. Let’s hope it gets made.