Wednesday, March 30, 2011
The Borgias Is A Splendidly Overripe Morality Tale
Take TV's J.R. Ewing. Mix in a dash of Tony Soprano. Reset everything to 1492 --the year Columbus "discovered" America.
And you have the splendidly overripe new TV miniseries The Borgias.
It's a tale TV tried once before to tell only to fall flatly.
I remember in 1981 Masterpiece Theater executive Joan Wilson telling me she had plopped a bundle into a new-coproduction with the BBC of The Borgias to star Italian star Adolfo Celli.
But the first episode which I managed to see was shot with murky photography and a European cast who could not be understood.
Celli went around muttering what seemed to be "I need nipples" but he was actually saying "I need Naples".
That version never made it to video and PBS sold off all its rights and refused to run the miniseries.
It's vastly different with the sparkling new version of The Borgias starring Jeremy Irons.
Irish director Neil Jordan (Danny Boy) had long planned a movie of the Renaissance dynasty but couldn't get backing until he switched to TV.
After months of shooting in Budapest he's come up with nine hours of melodramatic sin and sex centered on Pope Alexander VI impersonated by Irons as a man caught up in his own mortal sins.
This Borgia patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, a Spaniard, crassly bribes his way into the Papacy and keeps an enemies list of cardinals he must bring down to survive.
Joanne Whalley co-stars as his long suffering chief mistress and the mother of his illegitimate offspring who has always craved the finer things of life.
Their children include the impetuous oldest son Cesare played to the hilt by Canadian star Francois Arnaud and their beautiful and lusting daughter Lucretia by Holliday Grainger.
Canadian Colm Feore steals scenes as Borgia's arch enemy Cardinal Della Rovere who would eventually succeed him as pope.
The fact the drama stairs in 1492 is not accidental. The Borgias epitomized all that was crass about the papacy but here Jordan does not portray them as monsters. They were very much politicians of their particular era.
"Of course Neil could not shoot on actual locations," Feore told me on the phone --I'd last interviewed him on a LIberty ship in Toronto's harbour during shooting of 2005's miniseries Haven which starred Natasha Richardson and Ann Bancroft.
Instead huge standing sets were built at Budapest's Korda studios. "Take the scenes in the College of Cardinals. It's a tight space and everything would be cramped in the real article. So a set was needed --one where walls could come down so Neil could shoot from behind."
There's little if no Renaissance architecture in the Hungarian capital. Some real locations had to be redressed --"the Turkish bath scenes for example"--but others had to be meticulously constructed to look exactly like the era.
Jordan had a large budget of $45 million to play with and indeed all the principals look like they're wearing new clothes, Everyone is so very clean and neat which supports the look of the miniseries even if citizens rarely took baths in those days.
Irons does not at all look like the real Alexander VI who was fat and squat, Instead Irons aquiline features give his character a certain air of grace under pressure. Certainly he's quite a family man, this pope, always trying for the advancement of his family.
The real Alexander was one of the most notoriously squalid of popes but there have been recent attemots to rehabilitate his image: he carved up the new World for Portugal and spain and prevented war and was an anle if brutal administrator.
Feore as the main adversary Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) looks every inch the dashing cardinal with his long, lean face. He is as expert as he was in that ancient TV saga Empire way back in 2005. Other actors who stand out include Sean Harris (Micheletto), Lotte Verbeek (Giula), Aidan Alexander (Joffre Borgia) and Canadioan Emmanuelle Chriqui as seductress Duchess Sancia.
And you'll certain spot veterans Derek Jacobi Cardinal Orsini) and Steven Berkoff (Savonarola).
Canadian Sheila Hockin (Queer As Folk) is among the executive producers and the Canadian contingent includes director Jeremy Podeswa, who directs the final three episodes, cinematographer Paul Sarossy and production designer Francois Seguin.
I watched the two-hour premiere and was completely enthralled, others with less liking for historical epics may flounder if they're unfamiliar with the era and its emotions.
Feore says he's on board for a second season should ratings warrant this.
It's certainly among the most expensive miniseries in some time, an indication producers are trying for the same balance of history that made The Tutors compulsively viewable.
THE BORGIAS PREMIERES SUND. APRIL 3 AT 10 P.M ON BRAVO!.
MY RATING: ***1/2.