Amid all the lust, murder, backstabbing and love in Neil Jordan’s sumptuously shot, elegantly written miniseries The Borgias, the most memorable scene may be the one with the monkey. Rodrigo Borgia, played with sublime smoothness and depth by Jeremy Irons, has recently become Pope, and his son and consigliere, Cesare, arrives at a banquet for cardinals with a tiny monkey on his shoulder. The Borgias pass this off as an eccentricity, but that monkey is a food taster, and in the poisonous court of Pope Alexander VI not likely to have a long life.
The story of the Renaissance family notorious for its unscrupulous mastery of power has been a long-simmering project of Jordan’s. He nearly started filming twice over the past decade, only to have the deals fall apart. Now he has made good use of the luxurious, episodic quality of the miniseries.
Jordan, who wrote all nine episodes and directed the first two, is one of the smartest writer/directors working today, with a signature more subtle than most. In films like the underrated The End of the Affair, his style is literate, crisp, cliche-free and - with the huge, successful exception of The Crying Game - without gimmicks. That light touch shouldn’t be mistaken for no style; Jordan’s fingerprints are everywhere in The Borgias, especially in the screenplay about fraught personal dynamics that bleed into the political sphere.
Those pesky vows of celibacy were often taken with a wink during the Renaissance, and Rodrigo has an acknowledged family of four children with his now set-aside mistress (Joanne Whalley). In the first episode Rodrigo bribes his way to the Papacy at a time when the Pope was more political power-broker than spiritual leader. That takes a few rounds of voting but don’t be impatient. Soon he and Cesare are putting many Machiavellian dramas in motion, and the series becomes loaded with sex and murderous action; sometimes the two are connected, sometimes not.
Irons makes Rodrigo deeply corrupt and power-mad, yet also burdened by the weight of his responsibility. As the jeweled triple crown of the Pope is placed on his head, Irons’ face in close-up is a marvel of conflicting emotions, from satisfaction to a hint of trepidation. Throughout, he snarls with the sinister voice of Scar, is more lethal than Claus von Bulow, always as attractive as Jeremy Irons – not a bad definition of power.
Cesare is equally important to the series, played with smooth intensity by Francois Arnaud as one of those irresistible, seductive bad boys. Cesare resents having been forced into the family business, the priesthood, but is less reluctant to be his father’s henchman. Early on, Cesare hires an assassin named Micheletto (Sean Harris) to spy and if necessary murder. Among other jobs, he covers up the Pope’s torrid affair with his beautiful aristocratic mistress, Giulia (Lotte Verbeek, with Irons in the photo above).
As history has gossiped, Cesare is perhaps a little too fond of his sister. At the start of the series Lucrezia Borgia was not yet a name to be feared but a lovely innocent (Holliday Grainger). The scenes between brother and sister are full of sexual tension. But soon Lucrezia is married off to an older brute; a pawn of Rodrigo’s political alliances, she learns to maneuver on her own.
Artistry infuses every bit of The Borgias. The series is filmed with maximum Renaissance splendor, full of gold and pageantry, colorful costumes and elaborate jewels, a vision of the Vatican in all its Renaissance glory. But the scenes of murder and intrigue become shadowy, full of chairoscuro.
Notice how shrewdly Jordan uses the confessional; it is not simply a box where guilty secrets are spilled. Looking through its grate (even that is beautifully-wrought) it’s the place where Rodrigo and Giulia make their first moves on each other.
And touches of delicious wit run through the screenplay. As Lucrezia poses for a portrait she explains that her father refused to hire that overpriced artist Leonardo da Vinci. When Rodrigo’s archenemy Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore) becomes too threatening Rodrigo dryly suggests to Cesare that he might know “someone who can wield a good garrote."
As deadly as the Borgias were in life, this enthralling miniseries makes them immense fun to watch.
The series begins Sunday on Showtime. Here’s a trailer with a fine overview of the spectacle.