When legendary filmmaker George Cukor was asked what he thought about his 1935 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, he said if he could do it over again he would “get the garlic and the Mediterranean into it.” What Cukor meant was that his staid retelling of Shakespeare’s legendary tome of star-crossed lovers lacked the intensity and passion at the heart of the tale. The same could be said of another story of a Renaissance family on the Mediterranean: Showtime’s latest offering of historical fiction, The Borgias.
The show focuses on the life and times of one of history’s most infamous popes, Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons), aka Rodrigo Borgia, and the escapades and intrigues of his nefarious brood. It begins in 1492 amidst the deathbed laments of Alexander’s predecessor, Pope Innocent VIII, with the ensuing papal election and all of its attendant machinations, introducing the other key members of the Borgia clan: his sons Cesare (Francois Arnaud) and Juan (David Oakes); his daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Granger) and their mother, his long time mistress Vanozza (Joanne Whalley). The show follows the day-to-day intrigue of the Renaissance Vatican, particularly as it plays out amongst Pope Alexander’s various enemies in their attempts to unseat him from the Chair of St. Peter.
No scandalous stone is left unturned as the show immediately hits all the (by now oft-played) lascivious notes in the story of one of history’s most reviled families. There’s the aforementioned corrupt papal election and subsequent fallout, including the poisoning — you can’t have a show about the Borgias without someone being poisoned — of Cardinal Orsini (portrayed by the legendary Derek Jacobi). There are orgies, sword fights, mistresses, espionage, incestual inferences — and even abortion somehow finds its way to Renaissance Rome. And yet, somehow, in spite of all the juiciness, intrigue and debauchery, The Borgias is dull, dull, dull.
While it used to be enough for a television series to be entertaining, The Sopranos raised the bar by demonstrating that television could be art. Subsequently there have been a slew of “significant” cable series, some more successful than others, which have attempted the extremely difficult task of turning a weekly serial into something more than just a way to pass time on the couch.
One cannot help but feel that those behind The Borgias want it to be such a show. And really there is only one person “behind” the show: its creator, Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan. His previous work suggests an understanding of smaller, more contemporary pieces (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa) over larger, more elaborate films (Interview with a Vampire), and that lack of aptitude for the grand and robust is abundantly clear in The Borgias.
A deft hand is needed to balance the enormity of the historical figures at play — now deeply embedded within the historical imagination as, quite literally, the ultimate Machiavellian villains — with the nuance of real, flawed but fully human individuals in relationship with one another, attempting to negotiate their particular situations as best they can. The easier route would be to take one road or another: either going for full-out pulp, as with direct Borgias ancestor The Tudors, or for smaller, more nuanced storytelling such as that in recent Oscar winner The King’s Speech.
Instead, Jordan tries to have his cake and eat it too, and he is not up to the task, though the show does have its moments. The cinematography in particular is often quite stunning; Jordan is excellent at conveying a sense of grandiosity through the visual image and the opening sequence of all of the cardinals in red surrounding the dying Innocent in white is indeed a vision to behold.
Sadly, Jordan, in his aspirations to create “significant” television, falls into the trap of making even the most titillating sequences tedious and pallid. The papal election sequence, which had the potential to be wrung for ample amounts of intrigue and suspense, is done in the seeming blink of an eye and winds up being nothing more than a bland montage of unknown characters and confusing events.
Jeremy Irons plays Alexander in much the same manner as his Oscar-winning Klaus Von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune: disinterested, aloof and petulant. His performance works as far as it goes, and is superior to the material, yet one can’t get rid of the nagging sense that his character’s disinterest parallels his own, and that he might just be more invested in the paycheck than in the piece itself.
Francois Arnaud, on the other hand, brings a level of urgency and immediacy that is lacking in other places. It is only when Arnaud’s Cesare is gamely running back and forth attempting to protect his family that the show comes to life. Cesare’s world is very real and true, and gives the audience a taste of the sense of danger that existed during the time of the Renaissance papacy.
Jordan and the show seem to be attempting to draw parallels with the contemporary Church or at the very least contemporary society, but these generally fall flat. While the fundamentally corruptible nature of power is always a lesson worth retelling, the lumbering heavy-handedness of the The Borgias comes across as condescending and more than a little bit hackneyed.
The show takes the expected swipes at the usual targets, celibacy, mortifications and simony, with the usual broad strokes, reading more like a college freshman theology paper on Church history than the script for a multimillion-dollar television enterprise.
At the end of the day, however, the fundamental problem with The Borgias is that it is just not interesting, and television must first and foremost engage its audience before it attempts to do anything else. The Borgias has grand aspirations which are unfortunately deflected by its fundamental inability to bring the “garlic” and the “Mediterranean,” as it were, and instead turns what could’ve been a flavorful feast into a dull bowl of porridge.