HBO/BBC’s Rome declined and fell last night in a disappointing re-run of the Antony & Cleopatra myth, as conceived by Shakespeare and made glamorous by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
I’ve never bought the asp-induced death of the Egyptian queen: Octavian must have had her quietly murdered. It’s the sort of thing he’d have done as an averagely ruthless Roman on the make. Antony’s downfall was underscored with black eyeliner – kohl on movie male eyes usually signposts effeminacy and a journey into exotic decadence prior to horrible death – but James Purefoy’s Marcus Antonius was at least both robust and pathetic while Burton’s was all delirium tremors on account of the many nights before.
Lyndsey Marshal’s Cleopatra intrigued – tiny, faintly boyish, possibly beautiful in a twilight, sconces on a far wall behind – certainly nothing like Taylor’s haughty siren who always reminded me of Princess Margaret: I’m sure Taylor borrowed from the royal spare.
Simon Woods’ Octavian struck a credible pose in masculine stealth: another Shakespearean invention of course, but something must account for the ascendancy of the man who would become the first emperor. Yet I cannot forget the story – though I forget the source – that Octavian in a rage once gouged out a man’s eyes with his own thumbs. I am not so convinced that Octavian wasn’t Stalinist in temperament – a brutal, sanctimonious opportunist fortunate in the misfortunes of his enemies. I am inclined to think Brian Blessed’s Octavian in I, Claudius may have better caught the actual complex truth of the man. I have no idea why Rome thought Octavian a mild sexual sadist unless that bitch Suetonius has been spreading more rumours since I last looked.
One invention that never made much sense was the great love between Octavian’s mother Atia and Antony. It has no basis in history – Atia hardly figures at all – and made little dramatic sense beyond sharpening the needle between Octavian and Antony. At times Polly Walker didn’t seem to know how to play Atia which may have added to emotional implausibility: she cast off one-liners and dismissive comments rather in the smirking and shoulder-shrugging style of Dawn French in the BBC comedy The Vicar of Dibley. Only at the very end, when she had to deal with Octavian’s wife Livia, did her face finally settle into a stony grimace – though the mischievous eyes seemed to be saying “I’m only acting!”
I never much cared for the Vorenus/Pullo soldierly axis beyond some lively battle scenes – graphic sword blade body penetrations being the latest sight-vogue. The two men dragged us into tiresome lower class soap opera and at the end tied up upper class loose ends of the series’ making. Ray Stevenson’s Geordie speech tics probably amused the easily distracted rather than entertained the more focussed – if I never have to watch this over-sized actor again it will be too soon.
Rome has six Emmy nominations, one for best hairstyle. It certainly deserves one for the opening credits in which ancient graffiti came to life in a way the ending did not.