Helmed by 2 major production juggernauts, Home Box Office (HBO) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Rome’s 12-episodes are reputed to be the most expensive and lavish television production ever made at a purported budget of S$170 million. Many early descriptions of this series compared it to the BBC’s grand 1976 mini-series, I, Claudius as both series focus on the political machinations at work behind the obligatory warfare set in ancient Rome before the advent of modern society. However, Rome follows the footsteps of the legendary Gaius Julius Caesar and his rise and fall in the most powerful and decadent city of the time. Historical fiction, it may be, but its foundations lie firmly in the story and themes we have become familiar with. The betrayals, the scheming and the debauchery all take centre stage in this epic retelling of the final years before Caesar’s untimely murder in the Senate House.

Rome
Rome

52 B.C., a tense reunion awaits Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) and Magnus Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) after Caesar’s long campaign to conquer Gaul has ended triumphantly. As the people’s choice, Caesar is widely tipped to be the next ruler of Rome which urges Pompey and the other Senators to declare Caesar and his loyal 13th Legion, enemies of Rome. Caesar manages to drive Pompey and his surrogates out of Rome and returns home victorious to a now ambivalent citizenry. However during the years that follow, he finally gets viciously murdered by the old senators of Rome and his friend Brutus (Tobias Menzies) who had begun to worry about Caesar’s ascension to power.

Caesar’s experiences are the main course in a feast of storylines intricately woven together during this pivotal snapshot of Roman history. Now here’s where the fiction kicks in as we get a behind-the-scenes look at the political manoeuvring of its movers and shakers. At the heart of each engaging storyline are 2 soldiers of the 13th Legion: Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), the model soldier with a strong moral centre and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), the womanising brute with a heart of gold. The colourful streets of Rome, the fierce battles and the back room struggles are seen through the eyes of these men; rivals to each other in armour but unlikely friends outside of it.

Tragedy and uncanny fortune befall them as both men try to settle their lives after the military, from violent fights with gangs and gladiators to unrequited love from the women they love. Niobe (Indira Varma), the wife of Vorenus keeps a shameful secret from him that threatens to devastate their lives and Eirene (Chiara Mastalli), Pullo’s slave who he finds himself slowly falling for. The 2 soldiers’ subsequent encounters with other players in Caesar’s war with Pompey bring about the outcomes that change the course of history.

Although Rome is essentially a masculine and testosterone-laden affair, the bulk of its plots are borne by its female characters. Most notable of these is Atia (Polly Walker), the Machiavellian niece of Caesar who oozes sexuality with every gesture and aims to secure power by utilising that very sexuality. Her prodigiously gifted son, Octavian (Max Pirkis) is blessed with remarkable political acumen and should be a major character if Rome is continued for more seasons; it will be the groundwork for the genesis of Octavius Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome. His sister, Octavia (Kerry Condon) is a naïve debutante who becomes a pawn in her family’s twisted lies of deceit and is her brother’s sole confidante. Atia’s love-hate relationship with Caesar’s right-hand man, Marc Antony (James Purefoy) offers up some of the series’ most humourous moments. Rounding up the cast of spiteful and scorned women is Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), the discarded mistress of Caesar and mother of Brutus, Caesar’s trusted friend.

Rome
Rome

These characters, despite not forming the basis of the history, give us an insight, albeit fictional, into the people that surround Caesar and the events that lead to the climax. It fills up little gaps in the story that we don’t usually think about, raising questions about Brutus’s motivation. Was he really the treacherous mercenary we have come to believe he is from Shakespeare’s account or was he just manipulated into killing Caesar by his contemptuous mother? The webs of deception never cease till the very end.

The chiefly British cast will be unfamiliar to those that prefer mainstream fare. However, the actors are accomplished and have undeniable chemistry with one another. The mannerisms employed by these actors are primarily British including the expletives often bandied about. HBO has once again pushed the envelope of acceptable artistic license on cable television by using violence, nudity and even incest as regular themes on the show. It might seem excessive or even unneccessary to a few but one must remember such was the zeitgeist of the time and people were not as conservative in ancient Rome. After all, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Rome
Rome

The score is extraordinary as each nuance expressed by the character is aptly supported by a rich and chilling soundtrack. Opulent baroque designs, rich with period atmosphere, are coupled with parched and arid landscapes. Its savage setting sets the tone of what to expect each time the opening scene is introduced. Filmed entirely in Italy and at the famous Cinecittà Studios, ancient Rome is brought to life as a bustling and colourful city.

Undoubtedly this year’s Angels in AmericaRome is expected to sweep all awards in its category and is HBO’s prestige series for 2005. Taking over from the slot left open by its predecessor, Six Feet Under, this epic series has already been greenlit for a 2nd season. However, due to its high production cost, complicated shooting schedules and contracts with its cast and the BBC, the following season is still up in the air. Originally a mini-series, it still leaves us with a slight cliff-hanger involving the 2 soldiers.

Nonetheless, it is an honour to witness the bar being raised on television once again by cable television. Morally bankrupt patricians, brutal slayings and heartbreaking loss barely scratch the surface of the multi-layered Rome, its political intrigues make even The West Wing look self-indulgent and foolish. Simply put, this is as good as television is ever going to get.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 stars


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