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THE NEXT ROMANA FIXA

 
For the many of us who can’t get enough on all those evil emperors and hangers-on indulging their power games and sex appetites, HBO’s Rome is the latest fix and once we clear the hurdles of character introductions, the series fascinates in its non-pro forma depictions of the names so famous as well as infamous: with revealing facets more trashy than fresh and arguably more historically inaccurate than the producers claim, Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), Pompey, Brutus, Cicero (David Bamber, extending his Mr. Collins persona), Octavian (Max Pirkis and then Simon Woods as the show’s most diverting rapscallion) and James Purefoy’s Marc Antony (looking like a sex-obsessed Herb Alpert) seem virtually new to us. Their obsessions are equalled by the women in their lives—Octavian’s mother Atia (Polly Walker, who seems to have pigged out for the second season) and the scorned Servilia (Lindsay Duncan)—are sensational vipers, enjoyably eager to sink their venomous fangs into their growing list of victims. But this isn’t strictly a royal view of ancient Rome: we’re provided insightful views of pleb life via two of Julius’ trusted soldiers Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), neither of whom would be termed what Antony labels the whorish, hermaphroditic Egyptians he found himself surrounded by—“lick spittles.” Minus his frequently excessive rough-house steeliness, McKidd’s porcelain-like face has an uncanny resemblance to Roman museum statuary and he’s sometimes robot-like, and Stevenson has perhaps not only the clearest eyes of a swords-and-sandals executioner we’ve ever seen but also an amusing fearlessness: He says without a flinch to a calculatingly blank-faced Octavian, “Well, you’re you, aren’t you? You’ve never been the affectionate type.” (Viewers know why this Octavian accepts the slamming truths without offense.) The take on Cleopatra is decidedly more decadent than La Liz’s; her lust, gluttony, erotica and drugs are the ingredients to entrap Antony, already an irredeemable wanton. Lyndsey Marshal’s queen isn’t the fashion plate of her predecessor—the wigs and dresses are unworthy and her walk isn’t very Isis—but she’s a compelling fornicatrix in the writers’ limited view. (Nowhere is there evidence of Cleopatra’s intelligence.) A real spell in the visual conceptions: here’s a Rome that isn’t exclusively high polished floors, pilings of satin pillows and fountains pissing water; its palaces are believably scaled and lived-in (with real plants) and its slums persuasively slummy, filthy and gritty. Having become so acutely aware of computer-generated graphics, and accepting that economics rule what can be physically built, the delight of the miniseries is that HBO and partners BBC and RAI spent money to build a 5 acre ancient Rome at Cinecittà. (The forum is roughly 60% its real size.) The computer has been used super-effectively for all the decapitations and chopping away of arms and legs and stabbings in necks, stomachs and backs. Two years in the making, resulting in 22 riveting episodes, costing nearly $100,000,000, HBO’s Rome isn’t on the same literary plateau of I, Claudius—“fuck,” “cunt,” “cock” and “I hear you” establish the persistently contemporary mode of communicating—but it most definitely gets to the level strived for (and promised by Jeff Beal’s tantalizing title theme) with precision and, for the audience, deep satisfaction.  

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