Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I Told Him "Julie Don't Watch"

I don't know that much about Ancient Rome, but thanks to a first year Classics course at University and an abiding interest in history, I probably know more than the average guy. While this is normally a good thing, when it comes to reviewing the new ABC miniseries Empire a little knowledge is not only dangerous but can blow the whole premise out of the water if one is inclined to view it as a history rather than as a drama.

Empire supposedly tells the tale of the events leading up to and following the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar in 45 B.C and the rise of his nephew and adopted son Octavius as Caesar, under the protection and tutelage of the gladiator Tyrannus. Octavius is portrayed as a pampered teen, inexperienced and perplexed by the complexity of the situation that he finds himself in, which Tyrannus has to guide him through. This is the central core of the story around which the other conflicts flow. The death of Gaius Julius Caesar left a power vacuum which his murderers intended to fill, as did Marc Antony who was his trusted colleague and aide. Political intrigue was the order of the day and the miniseries makes it clear that Octavius is nowhere near ready for this. He must flee Rome, with Tyrannus, in order to eventually claim the title of Caesar. Throw in what will probably be a "forbidden romance" with a Vestal Virgin and the whole thing descends into the realm of typical movie of the week material instead of the epic return of the miniseries format that I'm sure the producers were hoping for.

The miniseries manages to commit major crimes against history and gets niggling little details wrong in a manner that is thoroughly irritating to anyone with a knowledge of the period. The miniseries is dependent on the idea that Octavius was a politically naive boy who had never been in battle, and that he had been surprised by being named Caesar's heir. In fact while he was not a seasoned military veteran, like all Roman citizens he had begun his military training at age 17 - he was 19 at the time of Caesar's death - and had served in Caesar's last campaign in Spain a one of the leaders of the 10th Legion. He was also well aware that he had been adopted. Indeed, contrary to the central conceit of Empire, Octavius wasn't even in Rome at the time of Gaius Julius Caesar's death - he was in Illyria (now Albania and the former Yugoslavia) training with the Macedonian legions for Caesar's planned campaign in Syria against the Parthians. They even manage to get titles wrong. Repeatedly the conspiratorial senators use the expression "Caesar" as if it was already a title as when Cassius yells at Octavius "You'll never be Caesar!" In fact he already was, by virtue of his adoption, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Similarly Mark Antony is repeatedly referred to simply as "General". Antony was in fact one of the two Roman Consuls for the year, the other being Gaius Julius Caesar, and a Consul was far more than "just" a general. Absent entirely from this production are Calpurnia (Caesar's wife), Cleopatra (his mistress and Queen of Egypt) and Caesarian (his natural son with Cleopatra) despite the fact that all were in Rome at the time.

Setting aside the historic ignorance being displayed in this production - and what I've mentioned above is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg - the production is basically uneven. There are some very good actors in this thing. Canadian based actor Colm Feore, who played Pierre Trudeau in the CBC mini-series Trudeau is excellent as Caesar (contrary to various comments Feore is not British - he was born in Boston and lives in Stratford Ontario) and Michael Byrne is very good as Cicero. James Frain, who played Paul Raines in 24 plays a too young looking and uncertain Brutus (strictly speaking Marcus Junius Brutus - two of Caesar's assassins had the cognomen Brutus the other being Decimius Junius Brutus Albinus) but does excellent work. Vincent Regan plays Marc Antony and just by his appearance is an excellent choice - he looks as dull witted as the real Antony reputedly was, comfortable only in his leather breastplate. Sadly not much can be said for the remainder of the cast. They aren't particularly inspiring, and Orla Brady plays Octavian's mother Atia (consistently callled Caesar's sister when in reality she was his niece, daughter of his eldest sister Julia - all Roman women were named with a feminized version of their clan or gens name thus both of Caesar's sisters were named Julia) with what can best be described as melodramatic flair. The less said about Santiago Cabrera as Octavian, the better.

The CGI recreations of the City of Rome are rather good and presumably fairly accurate, but there's a definite sense that they skimped in other areas. The crowd scenes in particular seem underpopulated. ABC and Touchstone Pictures spent a great deal of money making Empire but it seems unevenly distributed. They might, for example, have bought a better script. The fact that the mini-series, which was supposed to mark a revival of the big mini-series on network TV, is being burned off in June and July rather than in a sweeps period indicates that someone at ABC realised that they had a real loser on their hands. ABC would have been better off buying the rights to one of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome novels such as First Man In Rome. Instead they ended up with this mess. Watch only if there's nothing else you'd rather see. Or, if you want to be entertained, try to get a copy of Wayne and Shuster's Rinse The Blood Off My Toga - it's about as historically accurate.

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