Home > Reviews, TV > Far too clever for a Cardinal

Far too clever for a Cardinal

History, they tell me, is an excellent source of ideas for storytellers. The more cynical like to say that history is itself an excellent work of fiction.1 When I look at the more recent trend in “Historical” drama, I can see their point. These days, a mere retelling of history is not enough to hold the interest of the general public. It has to have sex and violence in it, and luckily, most history does.

The Borgias2 is a case in point. Historically, The House of Borgia is fascinating. Pick a family member at random and we have reports of murder, fraud, blasphemy, betrayal and all sorts of sex related shenanigans. They also happened to be doing all these things just as the Renaissance was kicking off, so you have interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places during an incredibly important period of history. This pretty much makes The House of Borgia a big shiny jewel in the crown of historical drama.

Holiday Grainger asLucrezia Borgia i (c) Showtime

Lucrezia Borgia, looking nothing like a member of goth band, The Sisters Of Mercy.

It’s rather a pity then, that actual historical fact is a mere footnote; instead the show concentrates on telling a cracking story which is sort-of-true if you squint a bit. Luckily, there’s so much good source material provided by history that it’s almost impossible to do a story about The House of Borgia badly, and The Borgias is well written, directed and cast, though thoroughly over the top.

The plots are fairly Machiavellian, which is spot-on, because this is a show that features Machievelli as a supporting character. Enough attention is paid to history to make it feel authentic without it being a history lesson. If you want to know about 16th Century Italy, read a book. If you want sex, violence, fabulous frocks and an engaging story about power and madness, watch this.

Jeremy Irons is marvellous in his papal splendour, and plays the role of the cunning, clever and quite insane Pope Alexander VI to the hilt, hardly a piece of scenery goes unchewed. The rest of the family are equally marvellous, François Arnaud plays Cesare Borgia as an almost noble yet conflicted man, torn between being a little bit evil and incredibly evil, and Holliday Grainger gives us a demure, slightly naive and yet incredibly deadly Lucrezia Borgia. I am very glad that rather than pitch Lucrezia as a femme fatale from the start, we get a steady run-up to it. The entire first series really does seem to be a prologue for the madness to come, and as history is only given a passing nod, anything could happen. A good start, but one that I hope will improve with subsequent series.

1: A news editor I used to work with used to describe history as “Human interest stories that have stood the test of time”. I sort of like that.
2: I’m talking about the recent 2011 TV series produced by Showtime here. Rather than the 1981 BBC production of the same name, which, if memory serves, suffers from not being as good as I, Claudius. By the way, if you’ve not seen I, Claudius, then you really should.

Categories: Reviews, TV
  1. john9newton
    October 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    The historical facts took a back seat (the role of Machiavelli being one of many), but who cares? The Borgias is great drama, even if Jeremy Irons does occaionally sound like Zippy.

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