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Saturday, February 25, 2012

I, CLAUDIUS -- DVD review by porfle




A massively impressive achievement in series television, the BBC's 13-episode production of I, CLAUDIUS (1976) is a hypnotically watchable small-scale epic that deftly serves up equal measures of the garish and the beautiful, the lurid and the sublime, as scathing political intrigue rubs shoulders with some exquisitely high-class soap opera.

Ranging from about 24 B.C. to 54 A.D., it's the multi-generational saga of Roman emperor Augustus Caesar and his successors during the last years of the monarchy.  A beardless Brian Blessed plays Augustus as a firm but jovial figure whose scheming wife Livia (Sian Phillips) is the real power behind his throne.  Not content with being the wife of an emperor, Livia's plan to have her son Tiberius (George Baker) succeed Augustus results in seemingly endless acts of treachery and murder in which no one is spared.  Just when you think you've seen it all, she sets things into motion that outdo Michael Corleone at his most vindictive.

While all of this is going on, along comes the twitchy, stammering, clubfooted Claudius (Derek Jacobi), unloved by his own mother Antonia (Margaret Tyzack) and wrongly perceived as an idiot by those around him.  These very qualities are what enable Claudius to survive until finally, through a bizarre series of events, he himself becomes emperor.  But even then, those closest to him continue to plot his demise to advance their own unquenchable ambition.

Adapted by Jack Pulman from the novels of Robert Graves, I, CLAUDIUS brims with scintillating, powerful, and frequently funny dialogue ("Does Lucius know you're plowing his mother's furrow with such ferocious skill and energy?") and is studded with familiar faces from the British stage and screen, all doing excellent work bringing their colorful characters to life. 

Blessed is almost cartoonishly bigger-than-life as Augustus, while Sian Phillips was born to play Livia with a steely, coldblooded witchiness that dominates the first episodes of the series.  In one scene, Livia's vitriolic exhortation to a bunch of gladiators to put on a good, bloody show--no pussy-footing around, no pretending to be dead--is chilling.

George Baker, whom I liked a lot as Lewis Carroll in 1965's "Alice", plays Livia's son Tiberius as a frustrated, impotent failure who begins to fall apart both physically and spiritually as soon as he's installed as emperor.  This occurs with the help of his trusted guardsman Sejanus (a mop-topped Patrick Stewart), who later makes a violent bid for the position himself.  Ian Ogilvy, John Rhys-Davies, and Simon McCorkindale also turn up in brief roles along with other recognizable faces. 

Best of all, perhaps, is John Hurt as the incredibly vile and decadent Caligula.  His mad reign as emperor, dominating the middle episodes of the series, borders on the surreal once he begins to believe he's the reincarnated Zeus and cuts a swath of insanity and perversion through the heart of the Roman empire. 

Not the least of his twisted acts are his marriage to sister Drusilla (which doesn't end well) and the brutal execution of a boy for coughing too much, the results of the latter being one of the series' more graphically grotesque sights.  (Although this is rivaled by Hurt preening his way though a lewd interpretive dance dressed as a harem girl.)

But the show belongs to Derek Jacobi and his wonderful portrayal of Claudius from innocent youth to increasingly cynical and world-weary old man.  Claudius' image as a halfwit, laughed at by both his own family and the citizens of Rome, allows him to pass relatively unscathed through a gauntlet of perilous encounters with some of history's most ruthless characters, including his own conniving friends, relatives, and wives (with Sheila White most impressive as the beautiful but abhorrent Messalina). 

Direction by Herbert Wise is excellent, with several scenes played out in long takes filled with fluid camera movements.  Wise displays an impressive knack for alternating between the theatrical and the intimate, having his actors play it big one moment and then moving in for dialogue exchanges of quiet subtlety.  

The 5-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 4:3 full screen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  Disc one features a combined version of episodes one and two that has minor differences from the individual episodes.  Disc five contains bonus features including "I, Claudius: A Television Epic" (74 minutes), a ten-minute Derek Jacobi interview, and a look at the cast and director's favorite scenes (36 minutes). 

Also of great interest to film fans is the 71-minute documentary "The Epic That Never Was", in which Dirk Bogarde narrates a look at the aborted 1937 film version of "I, Claudius" by producer Alexander Korda and director Josef von Sternberg which would have starred Charles Laughton as Claudius, Flora Robson as Livia, and Merle Oberon as Messalina.  Surviving rushes and some semi-completed scenes give us a teasing glimpse of what this film might have looked like if production hadn't been halted due to Oberon's auto accident.

Irresistibly absorbing once you settle into it, I, CLAUDIUS lets us savor the efforts of some excellent performers acting the hell out of a brilliant script.  It's the kind of immersive, richly fulfilling drama that doesn't come along every day.


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