Friday, 19 October 2012

So, I've been watching The Borgias. And I have to say, I give it two thumbs up. It's got a great cast, wonderful costuming and set dressing, and it's full of murder, sex and intrigue. Exactly my kind of TV. Although, really, what's not to like about a show about a controversial Pope and his illegitimate children? (Especially one created by Neil Jordan. Yes, that Neil Jordan.)

The Pope plotting with Cesare.
The show starts off with the death of Pope Innocent VIII, and Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, played by Jeremy Irons, immediately begins his machinations to succeed him. His eldest son, Cesare Borgia, played by Francois Arnaud, is Bishop of Pamplona and his father's right-hand man when it comes to bribes and threats. He helps to ensure Rodrigo's ascendancy, and then he goes on to protect his father's rule and the rest of the Borgia family during the ongoing power struggle. He enlists Micheletto, an exceptionally effective hitman played by the awesome Sean Harris, to assist him. Jeremy Irons is excellent as the manipulative Pope, and Arnaud and Harris share excellent master-and-servant chemistry. (Irons' voice always reminds me of Uncle Scar from the Lion King, it's an association I cannot erase, but in this context I find it completely appropriate.)

The show also includes the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Played by Holliday Grainger, she is first shown as young teenager, unspoilt and lovely. She befriends her father's new mistress, Guilia Farnese, and begins to learn what her role in life will be - someone with little power unless she uses her beauty and wit to her best advantage. Lucrezia's mother Vanozza makes up the third in this triangle of women. She portrays Rodrigo's former mistress and mother of his children, cast over by him once he became Pope.

Guilia and Lucrezia.
The casting here is excellent; Grainger successfully conveys innocence, followed by a growing awareness of her effect on men and capacity for manipulation, and Lotte Verbeek plays Guilia with the kind of guarded awareness and restraint you'd expect from a woman in her position. Johanne Whalley plays Vanozza, and the moments between the three of them are mined with the underlying subtext of the bitterly limited options women had open to them in their lives. Men held all the power, and women were lucky if they were loved enough or pretty enough to be spoken to. Even when they were loved, it was dicey; Lucrezia is bargained off at 14, sold into marriage as part of a larger plan to consolidate Rodrigo's power against threat of a French invasion.

The Pope, getting a headache from his Cardinals.
This show would also, of course, be nothing without its design. The sets and costuming are spectacular, creating a beautiful visual aesthetic that highlights and complements the characters and storyline very strongly. It's not a completely realistic look - everyone's a lot cleaner than they probably would have been, for starters, and it doesn't quite get to HBO-levels of realism (eg. Deadwood, where you feel like you can smell everyone through the TV screen). But there's just enough realism, so that even though some of the costumes are stiff and new, you do still get a clear sense that this was how people lived and interacted, with all these manners and rules, and in these huge houses, or in the Pope's chambers. (There is also the occasional bit of dodgy CGI, but that's most often in the long shots of what's supposed to be 15th century Rome, so I feel I can excuse it.)

Some of the marketing for this show described Rodrigo as the first Godfather, with Cesare as the first consigliere and Lucrezia as the first mob princess. While this is possibly appropriate for Cesare - he was already fairly unscrupulous, and his new BFF the assassin Micheletto merely enables him to branch out into murder - it seems like only a partially accurate description. There are power struggles in The Borgias, sure, but comparing this show to something like the Sopranos is setting up false expectations. Think less organised crime, more power politics. And family drama; Rodrigo craves power, and his whole family pays for it. I suppose they are like a mob family, in their loyalty towards each other and ruthlessness towards anyone standing in their way, but I'd compare them more closely to a political or business dynasty. (Or Game of Thrones, but without the dragons.)

Cesare and Micheletto, negotiating their friendship.
Within the family, Cesare and his brother, Juan, clash frequently, most often because of the careers Rodrigo assigned to them. Cesare would rather be in the army than the clergy, and Juan takes his soldierly duties too lightly but refuses to listen when anyone points this out. The children's illegitimacy is sometimes an issue, and Rodrigo's 'lewdness' is a major factor in the arguments against him as a Pope. Then there's the way everyone sleeps around, and the way Cesare occasionally organises a murder. While I have no idea if this is a realistic portrayal of this infamous family, it all makes for very intriguing TV.

The politics of 15th century Italy are a primary driver for much of what happens, as the Vatican was a huge seat of power in an unintegrated land. Italy of the time was divided into many principalities, all with a variety of rulers, and the security of Borgia's reign depended greatly on his ability to secure allegiances with the great houses - the Medicis in Florence, the Sforzas in the north in Milan and east near Forli, the rulers of Naples, and so on. Rodrigo marries Lucrezia off to the Sforzas and opens communication with Florence, Milan and Naples, but someone else seeks alliances with the major houses - Cardinal della Rovere, played by Colm Feore, whom Borgia defeated in the competition for Pope. He has become determined to see Borgia deposed, and it becomes a race to determine whether Borgia (and Cesare, and Micholetto) can secure his Papacy before della Rovere returns.

I won't tell you how it ends, or give away the many and varied storylines and intrigues I haven't mentioned. You'll just have to get hold of a copy of season 1, and see for yourself. As for me, I can't wait to start watching season 2.

Well? Do you think you could take them on?

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