sun 14/08/2022

The Borgias, Sky Atlantic | reviews, news & interviews

The Borgias, Sky Atlantic

The Borgias, Sky Atlantic

Power, corruption and lies in Renaissance family fortunes

The pre-publicity has been spinning this saga of the notorious Renaissance family as a kind of origin story for The Sopranos. I suppose you could argue that Rodrigo Borgia, like Tony Soprano, was in the waste management business, as he himself suggested when he took the Papal throne as Alexander VI: "God has chosen us as a new broom to sweep the Vatican clean of corruption."

But Rodrigo is undoubtedly aiming higher than a few sleazy rackets in New Jersey. As the incantation went at his spectacular coronation in Rome, "You are father of kings and monarchs, lord of the globe, earthly resident of our lord Jesus Christ, our redeemer..."

It's notoriously difficult to gauge precisely the temperature of a sprawling new series from the opening episode (or double episode, in this case), but I felt they'd got it about right. Plaudits to Neil Jordan, who has put in a Stakhanovite effort as creator, writer and director, though how well he can sustain this dynastic epic remains to be seen. No quibbles about the look and feel of the piece, with the Renaissance Papacy rendered in sumptuous golds, crimsons and purples and proceeding at a solemn but ominous pace.

jacobi smallOne thing Jordan and his team can feel exceedingly smug about is the casting of Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo. The peculiar emaciated quality of the younger Irons, both physically and emotionally, I always found baffling, since he seemed to suck the life out of every scene like a thespian vampire. Add a few decades, however, and Irons has acquired a sardonic insouciance, as if he has seen it all and emerged on the far side, impervious to good or evil. His Borgia is fixated solely on power at any price, and has achieved total mastery of the political poker face while conducting the most scandalous shenanigans behind his facade of sanctimony.

His rivals for the Papal throne in the College of Cardinals see right through him, because they're engaged in the same knife-under-the-cloak warfare, albeit at a lesser level of skill. Derek Jacobi's Cardinal Orsini (pictured above) kept leaping up apoplectically to accuse Rodrigo of simony (or "trading sacred offices like a market huckster"), but as far as one could tell, that was the only way anybody was ever going to get the top job. 

With the able and merciless support of his son Cesare (François Arnaud, pictured below with Holliday Grainger), who's a bishop but feels that his true metier is soldiering, Rodrigo embarked on a campaign of systematic bribery that involved denuding the numerous Borgia churches of nine mule-loads of gold and other treasures to be used as fat, shiny bungs. Rodrigo's offers of riches the Cardinals couldn't refuse were ingeniously smuggled into the Papal conclave inside their Eminences' individually prepared meals. Thus did the Papal Tiara finally descend upon Rodrigo's head.

Lucrez Ces_smallFar greater excesses of slaughter, conspiracy and corruption must lie in store, but already we're warming up nicely to the Borgia way of doing things. Irons was especially pleasing in scenes with his lover Vanozza dei Catanei (Joanne Whalley, looking haggard) where he piously explained that while he would always be joined to her in spirit, they could no longer share fleshly pleasures now that he was Pope. "Not only must the Pope be chaste, he must be seen to be chaste," he intoned, conforming to the time-honoured template of lying politicians everywhere. Should he not also take vows of poverty, Vanozza inquired? Irons went white. "Poverty?" he gasped. "God forbid!"

giulia smallAnyway, Rodrigo has already embarked on a shag-fest with the lovely Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek, pictured right), whom he visits via secret tunnels beneath the Vatican. Unfortunately his cover has been blown by his 12-year-old daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), a precocious and scheming child, who reported back to Vanozza that Rodrigo had commissioned a very expensive painter to create a likeness of Ms Farnese.

Yet more worrying was that La Farnese's maid was set to spill the beans about the illicit relationship to Rodrigo's arch enemy, Cardinal della Rovere (Colm Feore). Cesare Borgia promptly extinguished the threat by putting his newly hired assassin Michelotto Corella (Sean Harris) on the case. Corella had already dispatched the tiresome Cardinal Orsini with wine of an especially toxic vintage, so the erasure of the maid amounted to little more than book-keeping. Mind your backs.

  • The Borgias continues on Sky Atlantic on Saturdays, 9pm

Watch the trailer for The Borgias

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