Monday, January 26, 2009

The Glory That Was Rome

I have blogged about this before, but some things bear repetition. Yesterday I finished watching the second and final series of Rome, the HBO mini-series charting the history of the Roman republic from Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon to the Battle of Actium. This, surely, is just about as good as television gets: excellent writing supported by first-rate casting, all retailed at leisurely length.

In reflection, it's the characters and not the plot you remember (there is a lesson for all writers here): Polly Walker's Atia, at once repellent, manipulative and yet oddly pitiable and sympathetic; James Purefoy perfectly capturing Mark Antony's debased populism; Simon Woods' chilly egotism as Octavian. Those are just the standout performances, but there's hardly a dud among the huge cast.

I am not one of those who think that TV/film is inherently inferior to written fiction (although I do think it's very hard for a movie adaptation to do justice to its source material). In particular, I think that the mini-series format is one of the very best narrative art forms available. The 90-minute movie inevitably sacrifices something of either plot or character development because of the constraints of the format. The soap opera form never has a resolution (even though individual stories may); it merely repeats itself ad nauseam. The seasonal drama, even when it is done well, is essentially the same every week (for aficionados, that's part of the appeal, viz: Bones). But the mini-series has room to breathe, while also reaches a conclusion. Rome consists of 22 50-minute episodes, none of which stands alone. It is one extended narrative, an experience far closer to reading a novel than watching a movie is. The form allows sustained character development across an ensemble cast; it permits changes of pace and tone; it can afford digression (usually, in Rome, via the interpolation of frequent sex scenes...)

In Rome, every major character has time for significant growth: the obscure can rise and fall again, and all the stories reach a conclusion. It's hard to imagine a 90-minute movie mirroring this achievement. Even the very best of them (for instance The Page Turner, reviewed here) must work through subtlety, shorthand, indirection. A good director can turn this constraint into a strength, but there are options available to a mini-series which simply can't be replicated by a movie.

If you haven't seen Rome, I can't recommend too strongly that you track it down now. And I haven't even explored the interesting relationship between the show and the Shakesearean treatments of the same period in Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. That must wait for another day...

1 comment:

Alis said...

Hi Tim. This isn't actually a comment on this post. I've been given a blog award so, as it's a meme thingy, I'm spreading them around and giving you one too! If you don't think it's too unbearably naff, you can catch up with it on my blog...