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Review: Jeremy Irons Brings Charisma to 'The Borgias'

by Maureen Ryan, posted Mar 31st 2011 1:00PM
If you saw 'The Tudors,' what transpires on 'The Borgias' (9PM ET Sunday, Showtime) won't come as much of a shock. Bodices are ripped, blasphemies are prosecuted, and the rich get richer -- when they're not killing each other, that is.

It's another dose of middlebrow history with a soupçon of smuttiness, but the difference here is that 'The Borgias' has a much better cast than 'The Tudors' ever did.

'The Tudors' had a number of good supporting actors, but at the center of that show was the leaden, one-dimensional performance of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who appeared to think that pasting a mild sneer on his face constituted "acting." 'The Borgias,' on the other hand, has Jeremy Irons' steely portrayal at its core, and his velvety magnetism allows the viewer to pardon quite a few of this period drama's lesser sins (even if a few serious sins remain).

If it's possible for actors to chew scenery subtly, Irons does just that. Without being showy about it, he dives headlong into this role, and he somehow even allows the viewer to believe that his grasping character, Rodrigo Borgia, actually feels touched by God. Given how much murder and skullduggery the Borgias engage in during Rodrigo's quest to obtain and keep the papacy, the character's faith could seem well come off as a joke, but Irons grounds Rodrigo not just in ambition but in a twisted sort of faith (which might just be faith in the strength of his will).

'The Borgias' is not high art, nor is it rigorous in its pacing, but it was certainly not possible for me to resist the sight of Irons, Derek Jacobi and Colm Feore as battling cardinals in the show's first few episodes. Feore's character, Cardinal Della Rovere, emerges as the Borgias' most credible threat, and the actor plays him with a wonderfully restrained indignation. Della Rovere quivers with fury at the sight of the upstart Spaniard, Borgia, grabbing the papacy out of his hands; as is the case with Irons, Feore knows how effective it can be to underplay high melodrama.

There are plots upon plots and many scenes of cardinals and lusty ladies swishing through darkened corridors in their expensive silk gowns. Yet Neil Jordan, who directed and wrote many of these episodes, takes these characters and their situations somewhat seriously, despite the drama's sillier excesses. Cesare Borgia (François Arnaud), for example, becomes a intriguing and even sympathetic character, despite his many crimes. Rodrigo forces Cesare into the priesthood and the unwilling cleric becomes the family's enforcer, murdering enemies with the help of a dead-eyed assassin named Micheletto (a fantastic Sean Harris).

Cesare and Micheletto do Rodrigo's dirty work for him, allowing the arrogant cleric to focus on dallying with his various women and marrying off his daughter, Lucrezia. Every step of the way, you see how much his father's machinations cost Cesare (what's more scary is that the Borgias' vicious ways don't faze Micheletto at all).

All that being said, there are soapy elements that just don't work well; most of them have to do with 'The Borgias' underdeveloped female characters, who are mainly there for decoration (or disrobing). The not-at-all subtle incest vibe between Cesare and his sister seems directly borrowed from a daytime soap, and a good amount of the dialogue is functional at best and clunky at worst.

Yet by casting Feore, Arnaud, Harris and the magnetic Irons in this Gothic soap opera about randy popes and their enemies, and by taking the world of 15th Century Rome moderately seriously, Jordan ensured that this drama would be more than just a mildly cheesy guilty pleasure. It's not much more than that, mind you, but you won't have to go to confession after you've partaken of this Showtime costume drama.

(In Canada, 'The Borgias' premieres at the same date/time on Bravo!).

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I really loved it and I thought the relationship between Cesare & Lucrezia was fascinating to watch. It's just the pilot, we all know Lucrezia was very interesting so she'll surely be developed as more than pretty decoration.

April 02 2011 at 2:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Comcast On Demand has the first episode available to watch before the show premieres. Unfortunately I could hardly get through the pilot. None of the characters interested me and it felt very predictable. Also, the scene where Lucrezia and Cesare are chatting about their father's ambitions for the papacy seemed clunky. Who has that kind of conversation? It was obviously meant to clue the viewers in to the backstory of this family, but it came off as out place. I prefer dramas to just pull you in without spending too much time explaining things. The whole "show versus tell" idea.

March 31 2011 at 9:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"The not-at-all subtle incest vibe between Cesare and his sister seems directly borrowed from a daytime soap"

Nope. No proof, but it was gossiped about at the time; she was sometimes overly attentive to him, and he exhibited jealousy of her husbands when she was not.

March 31 2011 at 2:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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