The Borgias – 0 Tudors – 6: review of the Showtime series starring Jeremy Irons

Suffering from withdrawal symptoms at the end of my DVD box set binge of The Tudors — superb pacy story-telling, complex characters you cared about, stunning costumes and jewellery — I looked for a replacement. One friend assured me that The Borgias with Jeremy Irons was as good as. How could it not be? The most infamous family in Christendom, politics, power, treachery and sex.

I’m afraid my friend was wrong. Very wrong.

It’s like wading through wet cement and I’m having a problem staying with it in the 2nd season. I can see why it was dropped after three seasons. Jeremy Irons is more a peeved country squire than the satanic but charming Roderigo Borgia transforming himself into Pope Alexander. No matter how much he seethes and flashes his eyes, he does not have the gravity of Daddy Borgia.

Same with Cesare Borgia played by Francois Arnaud. These are not bad actors, just a sadly miscast reflection of the programme’s middle-class audience.

The real problem is the script. Ye gods: pompous, ponderous, on the nose, overlong. Scenes that outstay their welcome, the writing puts the bore in Borgias. I mean, how can you make Nicolo Machiavelli a smirking clerk? None of the lethal intelligence of the age is even approximated at, only shallow posturing. Neil Jordan needed someone on the team to give him a counter-balancing wit and verve, the sort that made The Tudors sparkle.

Not just in the style, but the content. The Tudors is excellent in showing how complicated politics worked in Henry VIII’s time and swings you with masterful ease around all the perspectives, so you always understand the motivation behind dodgy choices even if you don’t agree with them. The Borgias just have one dreary linear one-damn-thing-after-another plot but with long gaps. It’s mostly telling with little showing, and all on one note.

We are told the fact that certain things happened and that choices were made, such as the French King Charles’s change of mind when he captures Lucrezia — but there’s never a convincing demonstration of why he suddenly held back. And then Charles simply agrees with Roderigo that the French army should go on to Naples rather than stopping to sack Rome. We are told the surface facts but are never shown the emotional and subtle reasons why this should be. This was never a problem with The Tudors.

Some of the characterisation is rivalled only by cardboard. Performances veer off grand guignol and into amdram. I mean, the affected nasal whine of the Naples prince and King Charles of France’s uglification may have neen historically true but here it’s apparent that it’s being acted.

The only character who seemed to have any complexity is Giovanni Sforza (Ronan Vibert), Lucrezia’s first husband who comes a cropper after serially raping her and trying to extract himself from the political commitments that went with the marriage.

The film set is the star. The bonus feature showing you how the vast beautiful hall of St Peters was made is fascinating. If only the series was half as interesting.

Showtime obviously felt the same as me and hunted for a replacement series to fill the Tudors gap and settled on what should have been a no-brainer. Unfortunately, this is no I, Claudius, Game of Thrones or … dare I say it one mo’ time, The Tudors.

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