Thursday, 31 March 2011

Neverwhere (by Neil Gaiman, TV series co-written by Lenny Henry)

Neverwhere is both a book and a TV series - that is to say, both were written at more or less the same time, neither is an adaptation of the other. I read the book a couple of years ago, so my memory of it is a little bit fuzzy now, but I visited an old friend last weekend and we watched the whole TV show from beginning to end.

The first thing we quickly realised was that it was much newer than we thought - both of us were convinced the show must have been from the late 80s, but it turned out to have been made in 1996. The special effects, style of direction and cinematography (telematography?!) and even the style of the acting, however, could have come from any point from the 70s to the 90s, I think - my friend wondered aloud how spectacular it could be if made now. The first of two standouts, acting wise, was clearly Patterson Joseph as the Marquis de Carabas (that's why he always looks irritatingly familiar to me!) who was shorter and less skinny than the Marquis was in my head, but absolutely brilliant. We both finished the series desperate for a twenty-years-on follow-up showing us where the Marquis is now, and what he's doing - killing alligators in New York, possibly. (Joseph ought to have been the Doctor, I think - him or Adrian Lester - but I digress).

As in much of Gaiman's work, there are Classical references scattered liberally around the place. My friend is not, I think, 100% convinced of the value of Latin in the school curriculum, so I couldn't resist suggesting that if Classics was better taught in schools, our hero would have known that whenever a woman introduces herself as 'Lamia', it is time to run away very fast. The name of the ancient bogeywoman who ate children is perfect for a sultry heat-vampire (played by Tamsin Grieg, the first time I've seen her play sexy or dramatic as she's much better known now as a comedienne, though she did play mildly sinister in Doctor Who once) and Gaiman obviously likes it a lot, since he used it for the witch in Stardust as well. Oddly enough, my friend felt that this was not a situation her students were likely to come across in life, though I think there's no harm in being prepared.

Various other Classical references crop up every now and again, chiefly attributing just about every major disaster you can think of, including the mythological destructions of Atlantis and Troy, to the hired thugs, Croup and Vandemar or to the ultimate villain, Islington. The main Classical reference, though, is the Labyrinth containing the Beast, clearly modelled after the famous Cretan Labyrinth which contained the Minotaur. This being 1996, the peculiar fashion for minotaurs that I noticed last year didn't seem to have come in yet, so the beast was not half-man, half-bull, but a simple bull. To be honest, it wasn't even an especially large or menacing bull - it was quite clearly just a Highland cow, shot in shadow. This was one sequence where the book definitely had the edge over the TV series. The battle between Hunter, Richard and the Beast was exciting, scary and tragic in the book, whereas I'm afraid, on TV, it was mildly comical and far too short. I can't help thinking they should have gone for a Minotaur and used a man in costume, so they could have choreographed a proper fight, but I suppose that wouldn't fit the Beast's backstory, nor Hunter's African-beast-hunter identity. For her to pursue it, it had to be a proper beast.

A Highland cow, or coo if you're trying to do a bad Scottish accent. They're gorgeous creatures and I love them because they remind me of holidays in Scotland when I was little.

The thing that had stuck in my mind for 15 years after I first saw the TV series was Peter Capaldi's performance as the Angel Islington. I loved the idea that there was actually an Angel called Islington (being familiar with the name from Monopoly), I loved that he turned out be evil and I loved Capaldi's fabulously creepy, yet strangely serene, performance (complete with mid-90s big hair which looked a bit like a halo). The whole evil-angel thing didn't bother me because it's quite sensibly pointed out that Lucifer was an angel, so it doesn't come across as a dig at Christianity (I realise that would be an improvement for some, but not for me), but a perfectly logical idea, given the mythology.

Watching Neverwhere again, at first I was struck by how old school Doctor Who it all felt, but soon became swept up in the story, just as I was the first time (albeit occasionally jerked out of it by trying to place the various familiar faces in the cast). I think the reason I love Neverwhere it that, like Narnia but in a different tone, it blends a whole bunch of different stuff together very successfully - Christian mythology, Greek mythology, urban mythology (I love the use of old, abandoned tube stations) and a fabulous assortment of styles, chiefly what looks gothic to me and aspects of the medieval. And it's all held together by a genuine concern about the homeless and the way people 'fall through the cracks' in our society - it's no coincidence that the TV version was co-written by Lenny Henry, the founder of Comic Relief. If you haven't come across Neverwhere, it's well worth seeking out in either book or TV form, though if you find slightly ropey special effects off-putting, you might be better off with the book!

I'm away for the weekend and will be back next week with another Spartacus review.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Spartacus Gods of the Arena: Missio

Like the first season episode 'Great and Unfortunate Things', this episode was much lower on sex and violence than usual and rather more depressing (not to mention difficult to be amused by). As with that episode, this almost certainly makes it a better show, but you can't help feeling a tiny bit of guilty disappointment, because when you sit down to be amused by ridiculous levels of public nudity and people being hacked up in interesting ways and instead are made to really care about the horrible tortures being visited on the characters, it can be a bit of a sobering experience.

Batiatus is still alive, just about, but his appearance is now scaring small children after the almighty beating inflicted on him by Max from Neighbours' minions. (I'm reminded of Max's character in Neighbours, and temporarily amused by the idea of Max suddenly giving up on the whole responsible single father thing and getting in to the hired hit men/organised crime business instead. That could been an interesting development for the character - and actually, I wouldn't put it past Neighbours when it's in an overly melodramatic mood). We skip to a week later, at which point the girl from Hustle comfortingly reassures Batiatus that his wounds look 'less gruesome' (in fact, you can barely see them, at least from the back, though the bare bottom randomly on display was a little distracting). His face is still a bit bruised, though.

Max and Not!Octavian are enjoying some good plotting while our old friend with the fabulous earring goes pot-shopping (actual pots, not drugs, though knowing this show, probably both). Max insists on accompanying Earring to visit Batiatus.

Hustle-girl fancies Crixus, which Naevia clearly doesn't yet since she doesn't know his name. Hustle-girl flirts with a slave-girl we don't know (who is, presumably, doomed). DSG, Crixus and Gannicus engage in gladiator-style pissing contests, which are of course a bit bloodier than the regular kind.

We discover that Silly Beard Man speaks a different langauge, which makes a pleasant change. He speaks it to another man with a silly beard, so presumably they are from the same place, and everyone else must be speaking Latin. Historically, after the Spartacan revolt, lanistas stopped putting gladiators who spoke the same language or were from the same place together, because one of the reasons the revolt was as successful as it was was that the rebels could all communicate. That hasn't really come up in the series though, possibly because the makers don't think blood and tits go very well with subtitles (they obviously haven't seen enough Fellini). There really ought to be more languages around, but they are making up for this lack by going all out on the abbreivated English. I think 'Close f**king mouth' is my favourite short-English-Latin-thing so far.

Batiatus reminisces about his father's greatest gladiators, so of course, we get to see them all (they all have their own colour palette, it's like a rainbow of gladiators. It reminds me of a picture book I absolutely loved as a child, about a little girl who goes on an adventure in a rainbow and visits a series of brightly coloured lands with various exciting flora and fauna - only this version has fewer cute animals and more fake blood.). Earring tries to persuade Batiatus to sell Gannicus to Max, and they argue, but Xena gets between them. It emerges that Quinctilius Varus is coming to Capua, looking for gladiators (not, presumably the Quinctilius Varus, but his grandfather). Batiatus is feeling the strain and decides that all gladiators that surrender will be sent to the mines (a worse fate than the arena, since the work is constant and there's no opportunity to win your freedom, plus the silver was worth more than the slaves so slaves died quickly).

Gannicus boasts that he would beat and kill DSG if it came to it, because he has never seen the Scream movies and doesn't realise that saying things like this gets you an automatic one-way ticket to Deadtown. This worries DSG's wife, while Gannicus feels that, as they are slaves, there's no point worrying about the future since they can't make any decisions, which is a fair point and explains his cheerful demeanor and lack of resentment over his position. After passing Barca snogging in the corridor, presumably to remind us that he's still alive, Crixus tells Gannicus he wants to become champion and Gannicus points out this means he must never lose, which is fairly obvious given Batiatus' current mood.

These are the smiles of two people who don't realise they're in a TV show and are therefore guaranteed much misery for daring to look this happy

At this point, having seen Barca's boyfriend go down to his knees but nothing more than that, most viewers are probably starting to wonder what happened to all the sex. This is a good thing, as the episode is all about plot and dialogue and character, but I'm not 100% convinced everyone in the audience will see it like that.

Once again in the spirit of pointing out the obvious, Batiatus has to explain the difference between slaves and recruits to his current Doctore. He then compares Xena to Venus and she tells him he's blaspheming, which is nonsense, Roman religion didn't work that way. If comparing beautiful women to goddesses was blasphemy, there would be no time to punish murderers, robbers and so on because the courts would have been completely tied up prosecuting poets.

Hustle-girl has decided to try to snare Varus as a husband while Batiatus' minion distracts Not!Octavian from a planned meeting with him (and they're really getting carried away with the abbreviated English now, everyone seems to have entirely forgotten that English actually has a definite article 'the' and indefinite article 'a', even if Latin doesn't. What I really want is for someone Greek to turn up and start speaking in a ridiculously verbose manner with no abbreviations at all, to reflect the fact that Greek does have definite and indefinite articles). Batiatus' minions do for Not!Octavian as Max had done for him, though they nearly get carried away and kill him - luckily Silly Beard Man has more self-control, but the minion who let the guy see his face gets his throat quite spectacularly cut. No simple line of gushing blood is enough for Silly Beard Man, he practically rips out the whole of the guy's neck. He's obviously missing the usual level of blood and guts as well.

Varus appears and he looks sensible and fairly sane so far - that won't last. Xena and Hustle-girl persuade him to come to their villa where they ply him with wine and all three of them convince him that Not!Octavian's gladiators are rubbish, Batiatus' are much better, and wouldn't he like to hire the men he needs from Batiatus instead. Varus asks for a demonstration and Hustle-girl suggests Crixus should fight Gannicus, even though he's not even marked as a gladiator yet (and is sporting a pronounced limp). Varus then insists that, rather than using wooden practice swords as even Batiatus points out is only practical, they should fight with proper swords.

Considering all we've seen so far this episode is a brief glimpse of Batiatus' bottom, Barca kissing his boyfriend, one cut throat and a few memories, I was expecting this fight to be quite something. It's actually fairly tame, though, since both of them have to survive this episode - Hustle-girl saves Crixus, but annoys Batiatus by focussing more on her marriage plans than on gladiator-shopping. Xena encourages him to trust her, which is bound to end badly as well. Though I guess I should stop saying that, since this is all ultimately leading to the bloodbath we saw at the end of season 1 anyway.

Batiatus takes his temper out on his Doctore and fires him from the position, then tells Gannicus he has to go do whatever Varus wants him to do. Varus decides he wants to watch Gannicus have sex with DSG's wife because he's too tired to do it himself. Given that they've allowed her to get married, Batiatus and Xena actually look a little embarrassed about this, not that that stops them. They're clearly much less into rape and sexual abuse at this point than they would be by the time of the main series. Meanwhile, the old Doctore gives the mark to the Silly Beard Men (Syrians apparently) without the oath, and when DSG challenges him, picks a fight with him with the steel swords still lying around from the earlier demonstration.

Feeling the need to make up for lost time, the director now gives us close-up shots of Gannicus' backside while he shags DSG's wife, and Varus masturbates, all while DSG has an especially dramatic showdown with the old Doctore in the rain which ends with him spearing the guy just as everyone else reaches their happy moment. That's two episodes in a row that have put together images of sex and fighting - perhaps they needed more time for plot and dialogue but didn't want to lose either sex or violence, so started just putting them all together... To be fair, though, this scene is rather well done and although the rain, darkness, cliff edge etc in the fight is a bit over the top, it works on a dramatic and emotional level.

DSG has to 'fess up to Batiatus, but Batiatus acknowledges that it was his fault really and agrees to send his wife along 'when she's finished her duties'. Which currently consist of getting dressed and feeling guilty while Batiatus orders her not to tell DSG. She goes away to wash, and she would be sitting in the bottom of the shower looking miserable if the Romans had had showers.

Hustle-girl, meanwhile, joins Xena and Batiatus for a threesome and the director tries to use the last minute or so to make up for the unusually low amount of sex in the rest of this episode. The final scene, though, belongs to DSG and his wife both feeling guilty, as she reassures him that they do what they have to do in that house.

There was an astonishing lack of either blood or tits in this episode, by Spartacus' standards. This series is also taking the issue of slaves forced to have sex with their masters or with each other much more seriously than season 1 did. Where, previously, we've watched Batiatus casually rape slaves while chatting to Xena, Naevia getting Xena started and various slaves ordered to have sex with each other and it's been presented almost as background noise, here the dilemma of a slave in such a position is fully explored and the implications for DSG's wife are shown to be serious and traumatic. This was a good, solid, dramatic episode and the series seems to be heading in the direction of some quality drama - though if they're going to become too serious, they're going to need to start putting some jokes in soon, or it'll start to get really depressing.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Eagle (dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2011)

I really enjoyed this movie, a lot more than I thought I would. It dragged a bit in the middle, but was largely entertaining and really nicely – well, skillfully is perhaps a better word – filmed, Kevin Macdonald’s documentary background really contributing to creating a realistic-feeling world. It also helps that the source material (Rosemary Sutcliff’s boys’ adventure novel, The Eagle of the Ninth) provides plenty of opportunities to see different aspects of life both north and south of the wall, so we see more than just Scottish woodlands, pretty as those are. Spoilers follow.

First of all, I suppose it’s necessary to point out for the umpteenth time that scholars now believe the ninth legion didn’t get lost in Scotland at all. I’m not sure how much that really matters – it’s a good story, set in a time and place for which evidence is pretty sketchy, so why not? It’s also worth pointing out that, this being the story of the recovery of the Eagle of the Ninth, one character discusses re-forming the legion at the end, so the Ninth recorded running about in the Rhineland later could easily be the re-formed version.

All the Romans in the film speak in American accents, with the British characters in a variety of British regional accents (Jamie Bell uses a toned down version of his natural Geordie, the British physician is Welsh and the Picts, of course, Scottish). This makes a refreshing change from The Queen’s Latin and also really emphasises the Romans’ position as an occupying force. This could be done by giving the Romans English accents and the Britons Welsh or Scottish accents, but to an English viewer (and I realize the Scots and the Welsh will feel very differently about this!) the use of ‘foreign’ accents to represent a foreign invading force works particularly well. The Picts speak Scots Gaelic, as in Centurion and presumably for the same reason – although Welsh would be more accurate, viewers would probably be confused as to where they were, or why the inhabitants of Scotland sounded Welsh. The film also seems to imply that all British tribes, north or south of the Wall and including all Picts, speak the same language, which seems phenomenally unlikely to me, but there you go.

The film features a gladiatorial sequence which I almost totally loved (thumbs pointing the way everyone understands, accurate or not – see the reasoning behind Scots Gaelic). We got to see something not-fighting happening in the arena, which we hardly ever see, and it was taking place in a rickety, wooden, tiny local amphitheatre, which we also see very rarely (though the small amphitheatre where Proximo is based in Gladiator is similar). But, of course, as always, we had to have a fight to the death, because it’s physically impossible for any TV producer or film-maker to show us gladiatorial combat without fatalities, or near-fatalities, despite the economic craziness of the idea of just about every fight being to the death (a Roman might not care about slaves or their welfare, but they still cost money. The worst place to be a slave was a silver mine – silver was worth even more money. Executions are another matter, of course – there were plenty of those in the arena). Still the story wouldn’t work otherwise, so fair enough.

The film is very well shot, though the opening few shots did appear to be trying to make Romans in Britain into Apocalypse Now, which was interesting. Most British-set historical films try to make Britain look like The Lord of the Rings, which works pretty well because JRR Tolkien was British and it looks right – Apocalypse Now doesn’t fit quite so well. The performances are all fine, though all three of us who saw the film agreed that its biggest flaw was that we couldn’t quite ‘believe’ the relationship between Esca and Marcus. We felt like a whole bunch of character development from the book had been left out (none of us have read the book, but that was the sense we got) and the film played up the hostility between them far too much, making their eventual trust and friendship feel like it came out of nowhere. This wasn't the actors' fault - Bell in particular was very good - more a script/editing problem perhaps.

Mark Strong as a veteran of the Ninth, unrecognisible under Aragorn-hair and a slightly dodgey American accent

I was also genuinely shocked by how much you can get away with in a 12A these days. Back when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, I remember hearing that the orcs had to bleed black blood because red blood would raise the film’s certificate, and poor Boromir manages to die of multiple arrow wounds without, apparently, bleeding at all (he just looks sort of wet). In this film, however, we see a head chopped off – and we see it fall right off and blood spurt from the neck and everything – we see a leg chopped off, we see stabbings and although the camera does cut away from this one, a small child is murdered right in front of our heroes. I was a sensitive child (I’ve only very recently becomes somewhat immune to massive amounts of blood and gore on screen) and would have been completely traumatized by this. Which leads me to another minor problem – the film doesn’t really know what it wants to be. The book is a children’s book, but this is not a children’s film (see above!). On the other hand, as one of my friends pointed out, there were no women in skimpy outfits (no women at all, in fact, at least none with any lines), the blood-letting was relatively tame for a modern sword’n’sandals movie, there was no swearing… (‘and it would have been much better if there was’, he added). It doesn’t quite fit with modern grown-up swashbuckler type films, but it’s too gory for kids, so it sits a bit awkwardly in the middle somewhere (though, personally, I can live quite happily without skimpily-clad women, blood, guts and swearing! I’m an old-fashioned girl who enjoys a good Errol Flynn swashbuckler, where no one bleeds at all). Aside from that, though, the fight sequences were excellent – I especially liked seeing the Roman turtle formation (I think that’s what it’s called – where they all create a sort of box with their shields to protect themselves) in action, and we saw exactly how effective it could be in close combat and how the training and tactics of the Roman army could work against far bigger forces (all in miniature, with a small skirmish, but it worked well).

The part where the excellent realism-style filming falls down comes as the story goes on and we drift into the less plausible parts of what is, in its origin, a light adventure story. Our hero has a leg wound that is slowly killing him and he can’t walk any further… but after a night sitting in a freezing river (full of lovely gangrene-carrying bacteria, presumably), cuddling the titular Eagle (this is a man badly in need of a teddy bear) he is magically made well enough to fight a bunch of crazy Picts and end up one of the battle’s few survivors, then walk all the way home and cheerfully present the Eagle with nothing more than a limp. The serious tone of the fight sequences also brought home rather sharply the notion that the old Ninth Legion soldiers’ wives and children are probably not very impressed that they’ve run off to die in defence of a shiny metal bird (I mean, if it was the owl in Clash of the Titans maybe it would be worth it, but this one doesn’t even click…).

The Seal People's body paint makes more sense when you see how well it camoflages them against the rocks where they live

I’d recommend this film, because it is an entertaining story and offers a nice slice of first century life, beautifully filmed (the shot as our heroes pass through the gate in the Wall and head out into the wild lands on the other side is particularly effective). Just be prepared for a slightly over-long mid-section, slightly too-silly finale and slightly too gory product for a 12A certificate!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Spartacus Gods of the Arena: Past Transgressions

Just when the gap between series of True Blood was becoming too much to bear and we were all left alone in the dark, crying out for a good drenching of blood and gore spliced in with lots of shots of people's naked bodies doing all sorts of enjoyable-looking things with each other - Spartacus is back! Hurray!

Well, sort of. Season 2 was delayed while star Andy Whitfield received treatment for cancer, so in the meantime this prequel series, set in Batiatus' gladiator school, was made. Tragically, Whitfield's cancer has recurred and the part has now been recast for Season 2, which will go into production soon.

Since we know so little about the historical Batiatus and anything we do know was covered in the series proper, this is basically pure fiction, which is rather fun. The practical aspects of ancient Rome are one the things Spartacus usually does reasonably well (horribly obvious greenscreen work aside) so this promises to be a particularly satisfying slice of almost-Roman life.

We open with a flashback to Batiatus, Xena and the others' sticky ends from the Spartacus: Blood and Sand season 1 finale, followed by some choice moments of throat-cutting, head chopping and general blood-spilling from the series as a whole. Batiatus' end is given a sense of genuinely epic tragedy, his ambitions finally destroyed in a bloodbath that also spells doom for his entire household. This is, of course, rather necessary to make us care about seeing exactly how he ended up in such a position, but it really is very well done and only the flashback to Barca's and Mrs Spartacus' deaths remind us how throughly he deserved it by the time it came around.

And then - half a face! This gladiator didn't even bother to aim for the neck. We must be Quite Far Into The Past, because the colour has gone a bit green, Xena has her own hair and Batiatus is wearing some kind of hair piece. The white-haired guy from season 1 is a friend of Batiatus and sporting some truly fabulous earrings. Neither are running the show - they appear to be providing gladiators but a blond guy who looks a bit like the older Octavian from season 2 of Rome is running the show. Xena is with them, watching, because this show is still very much not interested in the idea that women could not sit quite so near the action during a gladiatorial show, accurate or not. I must say, the young make-up on all of them is pretty impressive - I wonder if they're all botox'ed up to the hilt.

We're introduced to Batiatus' current (i.e. past) champion gladiator, who has a long name beginning with G (Gannicus, according to IMDB - is that a Roman name? It's unusual, anyway, and he's supposed to be Celtic...) and whom I shall therefore refer to as G.

Tits! Both out at once, less than five minutes in. Not!Octavian is unimpressed when Batiatus' gladiator does for his own No. 1 in a scene reminscent of that bit in The Addams Family where Wednesday and Pugsley perform the final scene of Hamlet in the school talent show. At which point the rock music kicks in, and everyone who hasn't just been bloodily slaughtered is having a rather good time.

Il Doctore isn't here yet either, rather a slightly shorter and stockier New Zealander is training G. I hope Crixus and our own DSG (Drill Sergeant Guy) turn up soon. This one talks about hubris, our Greek word of the week, which I believe was mentioned before - are the writers running out of Latin/Greek vocabulary?

As Xena and Batiatus wander around the streets, people are being mercilessly flogged as if they were auditioning for a Mel Gibson film and a whole row of naked slave girls are waiting to be sold. This is actually reasonably accurate, unlike the tits on display in the arena, though, I hope, a bit less of a turn-on. (Possibly. Don't tell me, I don't want to know).

I hope they're not going to keep up the Matrix-green colour palette all series long. I can't see the blood properly.

Next, Batiatus and Not-Yet-White-Haired Guy have a chat while using the loo which is, again, entirely accurate. Spartacus is a programme that strives even more than the others (and Rome and I, Claudius went quite far with this) to present Rome as Other, as a mad, violent place totally unlike our own society. In this episode, they're doing this unusually well. Most shows (including, frequently, this one) depict Romans engaged in all sorts of extreme and sometimes horrific behaviour in an attempt to make them seem exotic and wild, when in reality, some behaviour is considered beyond the pale in most societies. This, however, is a perfect example of a way in which Roman society really was different - and rather less delicate - than ours, since this is a perfectly accurate representation of Roman toilet facilites (and the same goes for the line of naked slave girls. The whipping I'm not so sure about but crucifixions were, of course, carried out in public so that's probably fair too). (If you want to know more about Roman toilets, see Caroline Lawrence's posts on them here and here).

Thanks to Caroline for this screenshot of the sponge stick and toilets - the sponge stick having just been used, so it's being handed to a slave for cleaning

Next up, we're introduced to Crixus! Yay! He's got long hair and beard, so he clearly hasn't got himself properly trained up yet. Batiatus buys him.

We haven't had a sex scene yet and we've got all the way past the first commerical break, so the slaves have a quick orgy of sorts to make up for that. This is intercut with gladiator training because sex and violence can be metaphorically related, you know (I almost expect someone to sprout fangs and drain the nearest girl's blood at any minute).

G has a lady-friend who seems much more cheerful than most of the non-Xena women on this show so far. And a-ha! Doctore! He's off sick apparently, with some exciting scars that have somehow disappeared by season 1 of the main show. And he has a name, but I'll stick to DSG, it's quicker to type. He is apparently married to G's lady-friend, so that'll end well (note saracsm mode). It's a shame that after all the exciting accuracy of the toilets, we have to have married slaves - slaves could not marry, and although they might have relationships, their masters could forbid these (as we know from season 1!). The aim seems to be to present DSG as less Other than his surroundings - he is One of Us, with a lovely wife who is presumably going to cheat on him, which will help us to understand and sympathise with him.

We also see Naevia, looking happier than usual as well, and Xena appears to have a genuinely pleasant and sane (and brunette) friend - which apparently means we need a lesbian subtext to their friendship. Considering Xena liked using Naevia to get her started in season 1, this actually makes sense, as she is presumably bisexual, though that's not a thread that was really followed in season 1. We discover that Xena and Batiatus have recently go
t rid of Batiatus' irritating father. Xena would apparently never sleep with any man except her husband, 'let alone a filthy gladiator.' Ah. Irony.

Crixus bonds with some fellow gladiators who say they were eight of them when training began and now there are three. This is really daft. It was bad enough when season 1 depicted Batiatus throwing away valuable gladiators on party favours and rich people's whims, b
ut making them train so hard that more than 50% of them die is utter nonsense. Sure, that was his right as their owner, but slaves are still valuable property and you'd have to be as rich as Crassus to throw them away so easily. It's no wonder Batiatus never fulfilled his ambitions.

Ooh, there's an exciting cliff-shot. It sort of looks like Saruman's army should attack it.

Xena's friend spots Xena and Batiatus having sex, tits flying everywhere, and masturbates to it while standing up in the corner of the room, entirely unnoticed, which is something of an acheivement, though they were probably too preoccupied to notice any noise she made anyway.

Crixus is practicing with a man sporting a very, very silly beard. DSG is fighting Barca, who has also been raised from the dead thanks to the flashback. Not!Octavian accuses Batiatus of having no business sense, which is true, but in this particular case (that of Crixus) Batiatus is actually right for once. Not!Octavian has a creepy blond accomplice who looks very familiar for some reason and who I think is probably evil... (Later: oh my goodness it's Max from Neighbours! Not sure why I would think he's evil on that basis, I quite liked Max, though I seem to remember it all going a bit pear-shaped with him shortly before I gave up on the show).

Batiatus explains to DSG that he wants to replace his current Doctore because the previous one is his father's man and implies there might be a promotion to Doctore in it if he g
ives him some good advice. Advice given, the immediate reward is an extra conjugal visit (if you take out the 'wife' part, this is probably a bit more accurate - allowing slaves to form sexual relationships would cheer them up and produce more slaves for you, so it makes sense). This means we see DSG having sex, which if I recall correctly didn't happen in the main series - clearly, someone thought he deserved a bit of action too.

G is standing on the edge of the cliff singing drunkenly about his cock. DSG tries to persuade him that this probably isn't a good idea, but sadly he doesn't go plunging off the cliff as I'd rather hoped - he's only been around for half an hour and I'm already sick of this guy. Luckily, the whole point of this series to to see how Crixus replaces him, so he'll get his comeuppance eventually.

Batiatus and Not!Octavian have a little grudge match in the street, which someone points out is not really proper but they do it anyway. G is set against a huige guy whose armour is, despite this, too big for him, called Otho. Batiatus has rather stupidly boasted that G could beat any of Not!Octavian's men blindfolded, so G is forced to do just that and does surprisingly well (endearing himself to me a bit more in the process). Unfortunately, DSG's wife is rather impressed by this as well. Slimy peroxide blonde guy is impressed and Batiatus' fortunes are looking up at last, or so it seems.

Barca's boyfriend obviously hasn't turned up yet because he's snogging an older man, who will therefore almost certianly die horribly soon. G refuses to share his reward wit
h the newbie gladiators which doesn't win him any friends among them.

Back in the villa, I love the way Batiatus still sometimes speaks in weird, abbreviated English ('expect late return' etc). It's presumably a way of emulating the brevity of Latin, a language with many fewer words than English in which you can say things much more quickly, and it's brilliant.

Xena's friend provides some drugs for them. Slimy Blonde
wants to buy G for the opening games of a new arena, to fight for Not!Octavian's ludus. When Batiatus refuses, he kills his guards and beats him up, then pisses on him for good measure. Meanwhile Xena has a sex scene with her friend (obviously, when she said she wouldn't sleep with another man, she was being particularly literal). End of episode.

Xena's friend Gaia, who you may remember as the original woman in the BBC's con-man drama Hustle. Whether or not it's significant that she's named after the goddess of the earth remains to be seen.

All in all, an excellent start to the prequel series. It's great to see these characters back from the dead - one of the most worrying things about season 2 is that so many of the most colourful characters have been bumped off. Everyone seems a bit more cheerful here (not that this will last, of course) which gives the show a greater energy and prevents it from falling into scenes of characters moping about, as season 1 occasionally did. I'm also really enjoying seeing more of life at the ludus, and being able to sit back and let the story happen without co
nstantly wondering when they're going to rebel - I'm really going to miss the ludus when the main series returns. I just hope they're not planning to keep the colour palette slightly green the entire time, or I'll expect Morpheus to turn up with a red pill (maybe there's just something wrong with my screen!).

Monday, 21 March 2011

Rome: Triumph

Near the beginning of this episode, Caesar declares that the war is over, and much of the episode deals with the fallout from that ending - the biggest problems being that several characters consider the war to be far from over, and those that do can't cope without it.

Brutus and Cicero endorse a Triumph for Caesar, while privately bemoaning their failure to die nobly like Cato and Scipio. Caesar demonstrates his awareness of how many of them want him dead - one of the most intersting facets of the historical Caesar's character and a nice element to bring in here (along with his warning that 'Rome' will not forgive them a second time - one of the those TV prophecies that are carefully designed to come true). The music is clearly of Brutus and Cicero's opinion, as you'd think we were watching Commodus kill Marcus Aurelius, judging from the sombre tone.

Servilia was obviously really badly hurt (I'm not even going to contemplate how) by Atia's thugs at the end of the previous episode, as she's currently unable to walk and her head is all wrapped up. Atia pops over to pretend to be concerned. Atia lies about Octavia's whereabouts because Octavia has run off to indulge in self-harming, so Octavian goes to get her. She appears to have joined the cult of the Great Mother. Octavian complains that the priests don't really care about her, they just want her money, which makes me smile, as there is some implication (arguably) towards the end of Apuleius' Golden Ass that priests of the cult of Isis behaved in this way. Octavian himself appears torn between admitting he misses her, despite the uncomfortableness associated with this due to their previous encounter, and forcing her to return to protect their family's good name. The cult of the Great Mother was a mystery cult which we know little about - this version looks a little too Far Eastern to me (the cult was Eastern, but not Far Eastern) but really, writers and directors have quite a lot of freedom with cults that were as secretive as this one.

Boring Soldier is campaigning (in an effort to become even more boring?!). Caesar dredges up an unfortunate Gaulish leader who was apparently 'King of all the Gauls' (did all the Gauls have a single king? This isn't my area, but somehow I doubt it). Dodgey Soldier gets into a sulk because he's left the army and therefore can't march in the Triumphal procession, which surely he ought to know already, and there's no point whinging about it even if he didn't. Mark Antony finds 'dressing up and playing at being a god' silly, which is puzzling given his later prediliction for doing exactly that.

Octavia is giving Atia the silent treatment while Atia actually shows a glimmer of genuine motherly concern over the wounds on her arms. Only a glimmer, though. An (unhistorical) illegitimate son of Pompey's turns up outside Servilia's house, screaming about how much he hates Caesar, so of course she takes him in even though he seems to be a sandwich short of a picnic.

The Triumph starts with Octavian performing his priestly duties, painting Caesar's face red before the procession (apparently Mary Beard has expressed scpetical views about this tradition, but there's no way a TV programme is going to miss that opportunity!). The Gaulish 'king' is executed in front of the crowd.

As the mess is cleared away, the town crier reads out a series of crowd-pleasing announcements (complete with actions - are these the oratorical hand movements Flaccus tries, with unfortunate results, to replicate in The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem?). Boring is shocked to discover that the election he is standing in is rigged because apparently he lives on a different planet from everyone else. This distracts him from Dodgey's plan to free and marry Eirene - a plan which would be all well and good if he'd bothered to actually check whether Eirene wanted to marry him first (he hasn't quite grasped the concept of 'free', it would seem). Dodgey wants to go and settle down in the country, so Boring helps him out.

Cicero has got hold of a copy of a document called 'A Call to Virtue', purportedly written by Brutus and calling for a rise against Caesar. It has been put together by Servilia and Cassius as a way of forcing Brutus to act. Cassius looks wonderfully slimy, cast in the traditional Shakespearian mold of a Cassius who is determined to do for Caesar and drags along a reluctant and conflicted Brutus. I wonder if the writers have read Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March, which introduced the idea of circulated letters in connection with the conspiracy against Caesar, since as far as I remember it's not historical. Servilia guilts him into joining their cause.

Now we come to the scene which finally made OldHousemate(theRomeone) and I not only stop caring about Dodgey, but hope that really really bad things happened to him really soon. He frees Eirene, but when he finds out that she wants to marry someone else, he goes mad and kills the poor boy (who is not his slave and therefore this is a crime against Boring, as he's damaged his property). He uses Paris Hilton from Spartacus' particularly violent method of spontaneous murder, smashing the guy's face in, which confirms the influence of Rome on Spartacus. Boring quite sensibly points out that if you free someone you can't expect them to just fall for you and the whole thing is especially daft given that, pre-murder, Eirene was obviously reasonably fond of Dodgey, begging him not to sell her to someone else, so if he'd been patient and nicer he might have had a chance anyway. Dodgey complains about his hard life, which Boring quite correctly feels is no excuse for bashing people's heads in, and Boring kicks him out (and, hopefully, is going to care for Eirene, currently beong comforted by Niobe - otherwise she's now out of a job with no one to support her).

I'm afraid I really can't understand what the makers were thinking here. Why on earth should I take an interest in such an abhorrent character, other than to see him swiftly punished, preferably in a very nasty way? This is where Spartacus has the edge. There's no suggestion there that we should sympathise with Paris Hilton or any of the other similarly badly behaved characters. We watch in anticipation of their eventual dowanfall - they are the villains. Dodgey is supposed to be one of the protagonists. Though in fairness, I should say that I have no interest in works where the protagonist/antagonist is a dislikeable character, like American Psycho or even Vanity Fair, so this is really an issue of personal taste.

Dodgey is very sorry. Cuts no ice with me, I'm afraid.

Atia tries to be motherly to Octavia, and some friend of the Gaul retrieves his body and gives him a proper Gaulish funeral. Dodgey gets an offer of employment from a shifty geezer, and I couldn't care less what happens to him.

An odd episode, loosely structured around Caesar's Triumph but mostly advancing disparate plot threads in various ways. The most successful parts of the episode are those which foreshadow Caesar's death, particularly his words near the opening and Cassius' knowing smile. If the episode has an overall theme, it must be the misery of war and the futility of military triumph, as Dodgey becomes a murderer (despite his protestations to the contrary) and the Gaul has his honour returned to him after his humiliating death. Essentially, everyone seems a bit lost without a war to fight. This cannot be healthy and you just know it will all end in tears.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Classical Places in Popular Culture: Tunisia

I have a new article up at Sound on Sight, in defense of odd-numbered Star Trek movies.

Bit of an experimental post, this. I thought it might be interesting to look at some places from the Classical world (which I'm loosely defining as anywhere conquered or invaded by Greeks or Romans!) and how they're portrayed in modern popular culture - whether they appear much in their Classical context, whether they're more closely associated with other periods or events, their most famous pop culture appearance and whether or not it's Classical, and so on. The selection of places is entirely determined by where I happen to have visited in the years since I was first given a digital camera.

Whadd'ya mean, blatent excuse to show off my holiday photos?!

I visited Tunisia in April 2008 and all my photos date from that visit (the film stills are, of course, not mine).

Modern Tunis is built on the site of the ancient city of Carthage, one of Rome's most infamous enemies, home of Hannibal (who fought Rome in the Second Punic War and tried, famously but with only a very little success, to bring elephants across the Alps). Carthage was utterly destroyed at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC (I was very sad to discover that the story of how the Romans sowed the ground with salt to prevent re-growth is now considered to be untrue. It was a good story).

Carthage was rebuilt under Augustus, supposedly something planned by Julius Caesar but not yet carried out when he was killed. It became a thriving city in the province of Africa Proconsularis and was the eventual home of one of my favourite Latin authors, Apuleius.

The museum in modern Tunis is excellent and contains many interesting archaeological remains, both Roman

A charming piece labelled 'Drunken Hercules'

and some Punic items.

The remains of Roman Carthage are somewhat spread out, and unfortunately the coach tour OldHousemate (thecamelridingone, of course) and I visited it with only had time to take us to the most visually spectacular part, the site of the Antonine Baths. (By the way, before anyone judges us for going with a big coach-group of tourists, please bear in mind that this really is the easiest and safest way for two young women to explore the sites of Tunisia!).

That's me, dwarfed by the pillar!

The history of Tunisia since the fall of the Western Roman Empire is long and complex and I don't pretend to be an expert in it - suffice to say, modern Tunisia is inhabited by both Arabs, from later invasions, and Berbers, who are believed to have been there since pre-Roman times.

Tunisia/Carthage's most notable appearance in ancient popular culture was, of course, its role in Virgil's Aeneid. Book 4 of the Aeneid, which tells of the death of Dido, the queen of Carthage who had fallen in love with Aeneas, is one of the most dramatic and enjoyable books in the poem (Books 7-12 get really dull, I find). Meanwhile, Hannibal's exploits ensured that he remained famous from the Roman Republic all the way through to the present, where he makes a sort-of appearance in Gladiator - it is Hannibal's army that is supposed to represented by Maximus and his colleagues, while the female chariot-driving gladiators (inaccurately!) represent the Roman forces led by Scipio Africanus.

However, Tunisia/Carthage is only very rarely allowed to represent itself in popular visions of the ancient world. Rather, because until recently Tunisia, along with Morocco, was one of the most stable and friendly-to-the-West countries in the whole of North Africa and the Middle East, both countries have frequently been called upon to represent ancient Palestine in films about the life of Jesus. This ninth-century Islamic fortress in Monastir has been used to represent various parts of Jerusalem in Jesus of Nazareth...

...and it has also been used for the odd less reverant Biblically-themed production.

The desert sands of Tunisia have also been useful for representing first century Palestine

and the cave-homes the southern Berbers still live in are so unusual they've been used to represent a planet far, far away.

One of the biggest oases in Tunisia, in the Atlas mountains, was used to represent an Egyptian cave in The English Patient.

As you can see, Tunisia rarely represents itself on film, at any period, and its Classical period is little seen beyond recreations in the arena. The exception, however, is popular travel documentaries. Michael Palin and motorcycling pair Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman all visited the amphitheatre at El Jem, one of the largest and best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the Classical world.

The old, juxtaposed against the slightly-less-old and the newer-still

Camel! This was the first camel we saw up close in Tunisia, as we made our way south

Both Palin and MacGregor & Boorman observe how creepy and unsettling the atmosphere still is in the tunnels underneath the amphitheatre, where criminals and animals were kept - but of course, they all visited at a very quiet time, apparently in complete isolation! There's not a soul in sight in either programme (Palin's Sahara and MacGregor and Boorman's Long Way Down). The experience is a bit different for the rest of us - OldHousemate(thecamelridingone) and I visited as part of a large coach party full of German, Dutch and British tourists and we weren't the only party there at the time - so, rather than experiencing a creepy atmosphere, we were surrounded by excited children, giving the whole place the feel of a playground rather than an horrific place of death.

Palin also visited Dougga, a well-preserved archaeological site in the north of Tunisia, where he looked at the toilets (the Roman ones, that is). We didn't go to Dougga because that coach trip was full, but it's a good thing we didn't, as it clashed with the much more exciting trip to El Jem, the Berber caves, the camel-riding site in the desert, the salt lake and the mountain oasis. We can go to Dougga next time.

The salt lake, empty of water for most of the year

Tunisia certainly doesn't lack interest from filmmakers and television producers (recent events notwithstanding) but I think it's a shame that its own Classical past isn't explored more often in modern popular culture. Perhaps it has been and I'm just not familiar with the works - there must be a film about Hannibal out there somewhere, surely?! Anyway, I hope to see works that exploit Tunisia for its own (preferably Classical, since that's my area of interest!) past in the future, as well as using to represent just about anywhere else.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Ides of March (by Thornton Wilder)

In the opening pages of Knowledge of Angels – a book I studied for A-Level and, I’m afraid to say, loathed intensely – author Jill Paton Walsh correctly observes that any novel, no matter where or when it is set, is ultimately about the time and place in which it was written. All writers of historical novels know this, but there is still a certain amount of leeway in how one approaches another time and place. Some authors try to recreate the novel’s setting, as far as possible, for their reader, making only the most necessary of deliberate adjustments to ensure that their characters are relatable for their readers. Some deliberately (over-)emphasise the exotic strangeness of their setting and attempt to make it as different from their own society as possible, exaggerating the differences between the novel’s setting and their own and playing down the similarities. Finally, some simply write their own society with costumes on, either because they want to emphasise common themes of human existence, or because they actually want to write about their own society on a metaphorical level. The Ides of March falls firmly into this third category.

When the society reflected in the novel is my own, I often find this approach quite appealing, since it makes the book immediately relatable and fairly easy to read. In Wilder’s case, however, his society is long gone and whatever remnants are still around are far from my world, which means that I am reading a book ostensibly set in Roman times through the prism of what is, to me, a second period setting (elite Western society in the 1930s and 1940s). This can be incredibly distracting for the modern reader, as every mention of the Aemilian Draughts and Swimming Club had me picturing Jeeves and Wooster, throwing me into a completely different mental landscape. Caesar’s wife Pompeia also suffers from a characterisation and way of speaking/writing that is not only rather two-dimensional, but clearly a male-written caricature from the early twentieth century, like Lasraleen from CS Lewis’ The Horse and his Boy. As it happens, I love Lasraleen, who I think is hilarious and who has always been one of my favourite characters, but that’s because, firstly, I was less schooled in feminism when I read The Chronicles of Narnia and less inclined to be insulted by this particular portrayal of women, and secondly and more importantly, Lewis was writing fantasy.

Wilder explains in his prologue that he is not concerned with historical reconstruction and wants to write a ‘fantasia’ around ‘certain events and persons of the last days of the Roman republic.’ Again, I have no objection to this in principle – many excellent historical novels take this sort of approach. However, for me, Wilder goes rather too far in constructing such a ‘fantasia’, and I was left wondering why he didn’t just write pure fantasy (and annoyed by the sneaking suspicion that he might have thought fantasy beneath him). He lays out the major changes he has made to history – and ‘major’ is the operative word here – in the prologue, and I spent much of my time while reading reminding myself of what was actually happening in Rome at this time and who was actually dead.

From the title, the reader expects a story about Caesar’s final months and the conspiracy to murder him. The first, they get, more or less – the second, hardly at all. The ‘persons’ Wilder is interested in are Caesar, Clodia, Cleopatra and Catullus. To incorporate all these people into the short space of time he wants to write about, he has extended Clodius’ life by nearly ten years and moved an incident from the 60s to the 40s, and he has Clodia at the heart of political and social life in Rome more than ten years after her retreat following Cicero’s speech in defense of Caelio. (Things get even weirder when he tries to incorporate this speech, but has it as an unsuccessful invective against the Clodii, rather than a successful defence of Caelius). I can take a lot of historical inaccuracy – Gladiator kills off Commodus and restores the republic, but gets away with it by doing so right at the end of the film, and Rome keeps Atia alive far longer than she should be, but since the real Atia was pretty much a footnote to history – she had one interesting dream, had Augustus, was a perfect Roman matron and died – they get away with that too, because there is no real Atia with which to compare their fictional version. Clodius, however, is a step too far for me. If Clodius had been alive, the course of history might have run differently, as he was a man who was active in politics, and his death and the manner of his death was also politically significant. I simply can’t compute a Clodius who is still alive – but not doing very much – during Caesar’s last year.

The characterisations of Clodia and Catullus are much like those we’ve seen before and no doubt will again – Catullus is an emotional wreck practically finished off by Clodia’s messing around, though here with the added dimension of burgeoning rebellion as well. Clodia is fickle, heartless, ruthless and sexually voracious. Saylor provides a much more three-dimensional Clodia – just once I would like to see a Catullus who writes passionate poetry, but is otherwise a sane and normal individual, who gets out his frustration at Clodia through poems, but carries on quite happily with the rest of his life. (Catullus, too, should be dead by now, but like Atia, he was not sufficiently politically active in real life to present a huge problem and I can buy his continued survival).

Caesar is the most successful of Wilder’s characters, partly because we see so many journal-type letters of his and get a good glimpse into his mind. He is conflicted, confused, swinging somewhere between well-meaning and dictatorial. Most interestingly, Wilder really goes into the question of why Caesar did not protect himself as much as he could, the ignored omens reported by Suetonius becoming ignored intelligence (‘secret police’ are another frequently-mentioned twentieth century device). Caesar as a character comes across as weary – as someone who has reached the very top and is still not sure quite what to do next.

This being a novel of a different time, it is refreshingly low on sex and violence, which makes a pleasant change. Sexual relationships are referred to but never in physical detail and there is little violence – Wilder even goes for the ‘fallen pediment’ version of Calpurnia’s ominous dream.
Having mentioned the biggies, there isn’t room here to list all the various (deliberate) historical inaccuracies, but I do think one is worth mentioning. Wilder’s Cleopatra is a strange creation, part child, part mother and part politician, but the strangest thing about her is her sense of identity. Caesar claims that when he first met her she was insisting that she was not Egyptian at all, that this was not true, and that he encouraged her to adopt Egyptian customs, which she now does to the extent that she speaks and writes in Egyptian. This is nonsense from start to finish. I don’t know what Cleopatra’s exact ethnic make-up was (that’s a controversy I’ll avoid!) but I do know that she was lagely, and certainly by identification, Greek. However, she was also Pharaoh and her ancestors had long ago adopted Egyptian customs and blended various elements of Greek and Egyptian culture, including religion – Wilder has Caesar claim this was his idea, but the Ptolemies had been doing this since they first gained the rule of Egypt in 333 BC. And Cleopatra spoke Greek (and probably Latin). Perhaps she spoke some Demotic Egyptian as well, but she would never have written to Caesar in that language. I honestly can’t see any narrative purpose to these changes, other than perhaps to emphasise how Caesar likes to teach and instruct the younger Queen, a point made in some detail later.

The inaccuracies of concept also became problematic in places. I don’t object in principle to later or modern activites appearing in ancient-set fiction to fill gaps – I’ve thought of doing so in my own fiction and the appearance of the Tarentella in one of the Roman Mysteries is rather fun and plausible enough – the ancient world did contain women-only ceremonies, some of which may have involved dancing. However, the things Wilder chooses to transpose just don’t work for me, as they are simply too unRoman. The Clubs all the aristocratic men belong to do not fit with the family and tribe-oriented nature of Roman aristocratic relationships, and the Rowing club is the worst – rowing may have been an aristocratic pastime in the twentieth century (Oxford and Cambridge’s famous Boat Race, for example) but in the Roman Empire, rowing was done by slaves in galleys, not by rich young men for fun. (Lucius Caesar died in a boating accident, but we need to picture the ‘messing about on boats’, private type of pleasure rowing here, not clubs, organizations and races). Then there are the anonymous letters Wilder lifts from Italy under Mussolini – but transposed to a country lacking the invention of the printing press and where ‘democracy’ was actually thinly veiled oligarchy anyway, this, again, just doesn’t work.

The form of the novel – presented as a series of historical documents – is very interesting. I love the idea and in places it works really well, especially when we are given the chance to see different viewpoints of the same event. I did, however, find the grouping of ‘documents’ into themes, complete with cross-references, very off-putting. When reading something in Book 1, the reader is suddenly directed to Book 4, and back again, as if studying for an essay. There are ways in which authors can successfully play with time in novels, but for me, this was not successful. I follow cross-references to other sources all the time in the course of my work and have no desire to have to do so while reading a novel, and keeping track of the dates, which were all over the place, became very confusing.

One last point of historical interest – the murder of Caesar is recounted in Suetonius’ words in the novel’s last page. It follows, therefore, what Suetonius said – except that, to match his suggestion that Brutus was Caesar’s biological son, Wilder translates ‘child’ as ‘my son.’

This review sounds rather more negative than I mean it to be, because there are so many things I find strange or frustrating about this novel. So I will end by saying that I thought it was very nicely written, with mostly three-dimensional, breathing characters and that it told the events it wanted to tell effectively. However, I was surprised by the lack of attention paid to the conspiracy to murder Caesar and the amount focused on Clodia and, to a lesser extent, Catullus. I can’t help thinking that Wilder should simply have set his novel 15-20 years earlier and called it ‘Caesar and Catullus.’

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Centurion (dir. Neil Marshall, 2010)

Like The Last Legion and the upcoming The Eagle, this film is centred around the ‘disappearance’ of the Roman Ninth Legion which may or may not have occurred around the north of England and south of Scotland sometime in the reign of Trajan or Hadrian (see Antoninus Pius’ blog for details). Unlike the silly, cosy, relatively-low-on-actual-blood Last Legion, Centurion goes for the bloodiest possible explanation, as the Ninth are massacred by Pict warriors.

The middle part of the plot follows the misadventures of a handful of survivors in wild Pict country. The group is likeable enough, and includes David Morissey, whose excellent reputation is well deserved, and Mickey from Doctor Who, which makes me happy because I love Mickey from Doctor Who (Noel Clarke, better known as the writer of Kidulthood and Adulthood). The group accurately reflect the wide ethnic mix of the Roman Empire and surrounding regions which is nice – it would have been nicer if writer/director Neil Marshall hadn’t felt it necessary to have a scene spelling out exactly where everyone is from, with the group’s Asian member coming from the Hindu Kush and black member from Numidia – both right on the edges or just outside the Empire. ‘Look!’ the movie seems to be saying. ‘We have a politically correct ethnic mix which is also totally historically accurate!’. Well yes, that’s great, but you lose points for shoving it in my face like that – true political correctness should go unnoticed and unremarked. And, like any wide area with lots of trade and inter-marriage, black and Asian characters could come from major urban centres like Alexandria or Rome itself, as well as from further outposts.

Marshall is known for gory horrors like Dog Soldiers and, unsurprisingly, blood and body parts are flying all over the place throughout this film. This is all very well and good during the battle scenes, but like so many screen versions of ancient Rome, this one goes rather overboard on the general violence outside the battle scenes. We are introduced to the ninth legion as they start a barroom brawl by randomly killing a man who was a bit of a sore loser in a game of arm-wrestling and Agricola demonstrates Pictish scout Etain’s prowess by having her kill one of his slaves, explaining that while trust is priceless, slaves cost nothing. Well, no, actually slaves cost money, which is why, although a Roman could kill his own slaves if he wanted to, if he killed or damaged another’s slave, he would have to pay for it. No one would waste money going through slaves just to show off someone’s fighting skills – that’s what wooden practice swords are for. And then, to add yet more injury to injury, Mickey from Doctor Who is killed by a wolf because his companion has deliberately wounded him and left him there to distract the wolf. I guess total bas****s exist in all societies, but this didn’t seem to achieve much, story-wise, other than to annoy me and make me hope for the slow, horrible death of the other guy (though, to be fair, we're not actually supposed to like this guy, and he does eventually get his comeupance).

I’m not entirely sure about the gender ethics of this film either. Like The Last Legion, Centurion tries to combine placating feminists and titillating men by introducing a warrior woman, the aforementioned Etain, played by Olga Kurylenko. Warrior women are not entirely unknown – Boudicca being the most obvious example, and even from roughly the right period – but they’re much rarer than a glance at a few recent Hollywood films would have you believe. Although a part of me loves seeing women kicking ass, I tend to find this more satisfying in forward-looking genres – like Aeryn Sun in Farscape or Trinity in The Matrix. In ancient dramas, I think in some ways it’s more interesting to explore what women could really do within the constraints of their social role – characters like Livia in I, Claudius or Lucilla in Gladiator, for example.

Whereas The Last Legion’s martial-arts trained Mira was a strong, likeable love interest, Etain betrays the Ninth and becomes the villain of the piece. The love interest, in contrast to Etain’s tough brunette, is a vulnerable blonde, cast aside for being a witch, who stays in her hut patching up the men’s wounds and feeding them. The only other woman in the film is an aristocratic Roman who also betrays our hero. So, tough brunettes are traitors, while blonde nurturers are what the men want. I’m sure this film isn’t trying to get a deliberate message across, but this is the impression I’m unavoidably left with.

On the other hand, Etain has definite shades of Boudicca about her, which is nice – since she’s Pictish, they really ought to have gone all out and given her red hair. She also has very good reason for hating the Romans, who raped her and her mother, cut out her tongue and killed her parents. This creates a sense of there being no real ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, no good guys and bad guys, just the people we happen to be following and the others, which is refreshing (and means the non-battle related violence has some narrative importance, rather than just being blood for the sake of it).

The film suffers from something of a lack of plot or characterisation. Etain, thanks to her backstory and motivation, has the best developed character but dialogue is minimal and much of the film seems to be made up of walking across Scotland to get from one fight scene to the next. Imogen Poots manages to make her Arianne relatable and likeable enough, in her very short screen time, that we feel pleased when Michael Fassbender’s protagonist finds her at the film’s climax, but I watched much of the rest of the blood and gore with limited interest and little feeling. There comes a point where all the fake blood splashing around ceases to mean anything, especially if the characters it’s spurting out of feel two-dimensional.

One thing I did really like about the film, though, was the almost Odyssean feel given to Fassbender’s journey. I liked the bookended dialogue – ‘this is neither the beginning, nor the end, of my story’ – both a statement about how a single narrative can never wholly encompass someone’s life and a subtle way to indicate the Fassbender’s character probably survives his nasty injuries towards the end of the film. The way Quintus fights his way across country, gradually losing all his companions is, deliberately or not, distinctely reminiscent of Odysseus’ sea journey, which is a nice added Classical touch.

The Picts speak Gaelic, which is nice and reasonably accurate (goodness knows what Pictish sounded like, but Gaelic is as close as we’ll get. Neil Marshall admits on the extras that Welsh is probably even closer, but rightly surmises that Welsh would sound strange coming out of a Scots-accented, Pictland-dwelling people). I was amused to see Irish-raised Fassbender’s accent suddenly slip into Irish (rather than The Queen’s Latin) when he had to speak English in the middle of a stream of Gaelic, as Irish accents, especially from the North, are very close to Scots accents (unsurprising, given that the Scots came over from Ireland sometime after the Romans had left Britannia all together). In fact, he sounds slightly Irish throughout the scene in Ariane’s hut, which has the bonus effect of making him seem that much more at home there than his companions.

All in all, not a bad film, and beautifully shot. The cinematography is truly spectacular and I think I'll end up re-watching it quite frequently just for that, and for the sweeping muscial score. It was a bit lacking in depth for me, though. If I’m going to watch men beat each other up with swords for a couple of hours, I’d prefer either the depth of Gladiator, or the cheesy daftness of The Last Legion. This one is a bit too much blood and not quite enough character for my taste, though the scene where Morissey's wounded soldier is shot dead just as he thought he'd made it home is almost heartbreaking enough to redeem it.

P.S. In one scene, two of our guys see a wolf on the other side of a river. It took me several seconds to work out why they were so concerned and needed to run away, because surely the wolf was about to turn into a human ally, possibly one without a great line in shirts. Or trousers, in some cases. At this point, I resolved to watch a little less supernatural fantasy and a little more straight drama for a while.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Roman Mysteries: The Trials of Flavia Gemina (TV adaptation)

Image © 2008 LEG

The Roman Mysteries TV adaptations are being repeated every day on CBBC from 11.25am this morning, so this seemed a good time to review the next episode in Series 2. Major spoilers for both the book and the TV episode follow.

The book on which this is based on is one of the warmer, cosier Roman Mysteries, in which the main, apparently criminal mystery for the most part exists only in Flavia’s mind. In the book, this warmth is counter-balanced by the tragic ending, one of the saddest of all the Mysteries (in fact, for me, I think it may be the saddest. The Slave Girl from Jerusalem also has a tragic ending, but in that case I was about equal parts terrified and sad – it’s interesting to note that neither tragedy is entirely impossible in the modern Western world, though both are now much less likely).

The TV episode changes this ending by replacing the character death from the book with a muted break-up instead. To compensate for the resulting absence of serious danger (and to provide some exciting action sequences) the TV episode ups the ante on the book’s other main plot, concerning the escaped animals intended for the arena. This story is also heavily modified to be more appealing to a twenty-first century audience, as Taurus the sympathetic animal trainer desires freedom for both himself and his animals, a thread entirely absent from the book (as far as I remember - this may be the moment to confess I've left my copy in Wales!). This makes the story considerably less historically accurate – in a slave-owning society, animal rights were not a priority. The animal sequences themselves, though, are well done and the transposition of Nubia’s bravery when facing a lion so that she confronts the lion to save Aristo, and has much less success taming it, has the desired effect of demonstrating in a dramatic, visual way her feelings for Aristo.

It was nice to see a modified version of one of Flavia’s dreams from the book, which in the novel play an important role in both the plot and in Flavia’s character development. The dream is shot in quite effective whitened out colour (over-exposed, possibly?), though I’m not sure why the director decided not to show Flavia’s mother’s face. I suppose it makes the transition between Flavia’s mother’s dream-ghost and the living Cartilia watching over her more obvious and clean, but it’s so obvious that they’re desperate not to show the mother’s face that it’s rather distracting, and given the changes to the ending of the story, this is a less important point to make anyway.

Jonathan’s role in this episode is filled by Polla Pulchra, from The Pirates of Pompeii, because of a scheduling conflict. For the most part, this works fine – the writers use the substitution to their advantage in some sequences, such as an early scene depicting Flavia’s childish and unreasonable behavior in which she is rude to Pulchra as well as to Cartilia. Pulchra’s interactions with Lupus, however, are a bit too Jonathan-like and his presence is missed – though I was impressed to see that Flavia’s dream wedding (or rather, nightmare wedding) briefly featured Jonathan rather than Pulchra, which shows a nice attention to detail.

This was a fun episode, which included several pleasant moments of humour, and it was nice to see more of Flavia’s household (Caudex appears again, and of course Aristo plays an important role) in a more everyday context than the series’ dramatic opener. However, where the book was driven by significant character development for Flavia and, to a lesser extent, Nubia, the TV adaptation glosses over that aspect a little. By diluting the emotion of the ending and presenting Cartilia as a more flawed character, the TV version strips some of the life-changing development from Flavia, which is particularly unfortunate given that this story has been moved to a later point in the series. However, it does drive home the most important point – that Flavia will soon have to grow up, and that her father is looking for suitors for her. This will become even more important over the next few episodes.
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