Monday 4 April 2011

First Impressions | The Borgias

When it came time for me to pick what subjects I wanted to study in my last years at high school, I plumped for Geography over History. History in my experience had amounted to an interminable series of dates and family trees to memorise, and the hell with that, I thought: I'll learn about glaciation. Something good and practical, you know?

I have a great many regrets in life - don't we all? - and that decision, I'll say, is a way from uppermost amongst them. However I have, in the years since, had cause to wish I'd had the opportunity to study both, because I really do adore a good historical drama, whether in one medium or another, and my education, alas, has left me practically clueless as to the veracity of such narratives.

That's the glass half empty perspective. The glass half full point of view is that I can forgive a vast amount of historical inaccuracy, thanks to my ignorance. I simply don't know any better! And that can come in handy.

To wit: all I knew about The Borgias, before the feature-length pilot episode of Showtime's new series of the same name, was that in last year's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood I, as Ezio Auditore, stabbed one Juan Borgia in the ugly face and dropped another - namely Cesare - off the battlements of a crumbling castle.

I know a little more now, though I've little doubt what The Borgias has taught me about  the infamous Italian family fathered by Pope Alexander VI - played here by Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons with arched eyebrows and aplomb - is any more accurate a reflection of true events as the Templar conspiracy theory played out in the last Assassin's Creed. The pay cable station which gave us Dexter and The Tudors are in their infinite wisdom positioning The Borgias as Spartacus meets The Sopranos, and in fairness it's easy to see why: going from the first hour and a half, the presumably much-embellished tale of the rise and fall of "the original crime family" seems equal parts guilty pleasure and storytelling masterstroke. Creator, writer and director Neil Jordan - he of The Crying Game, and of late the lovely Ondine - brings to The Borgias an elegance and a clarity very far from the blood and balls of Spartacus, yet you can sense the potential for sleaze and salaciousness in every narrative margin. Be sure, there will be blood - there has already been blood - not to mention sex, secrets, and all the rest of it.

The pilot episode of The Borgias is essentially a showcase of the series' biggest get in terms of talent, the aforementioned Jeremy Irons. It is his journey in microcosm: from corrupt patriarch to Pope and back again, via a beautiful woman - the lovely Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese - who comes to the Vatican to confess her grave sins, and an attempted poisoning, courtesy of Cadfael himself, Derek Jacobi as Orsino Orsini. Irons, for his part, chews the ornate mise en scene of every tableau he's a part of. One can only hope he continues as central a character to The Borgias as he begins, for daddy Borgia's support is rather less convincing thus far: Joanne Whaley as his suffering wife is no Edie Falco, though I suppose there's time for her yet, and David Oakes - last seen as the villain of The Pillars of the Earth - makes immodest every scene he's in. Meanwhile the jury's still out on newcomer Francois Arnaud as Cesare Borgia. There's certainly potential for the French Canadian to grow into this pivotal role; what he makes of it, or indeed doesn't, remains to be seen.

At that, there's a lot about The Borgias it would be fair to apply the same caveat to. It could very well devolve into a romp, or else ascend to the heights of Rome, if not David Chase's modern mafia masterpiece. All one can speak to at this early stage is the promise of this feature-length first episode, and one imagines - with no small amount of trepidation - that showrunner Neil Jordan is likely to be rather less hands-on going forward. Nevertheless, he gets The Borgias off to a sterling start.

1 comment:

  1. The Fantasizer4 April 2011 at 16:23

    Damn you, for a fine writer Scotsman! and somehow this show had escaped my notice: weird.