When I first heard about the new Amazon Prime original, Britannia, I was excited. While dealing with a different historical event, Britannia reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time: Edward Morris's House of the Wolfings. This book, one which would prove to be very influential with later authors such as the great J. R. R. Tolkien himself, told the story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest from the point of view of the Germanic tribes who united to repulse Roman avarice. Like Homer's The Illiad, Morris's House of the Wolfings was not a strict historical drama but a fantasy-laced tale where flesh and blood mortals strove against Roman might with the mystical aid of pagan goddesses and dwarven enchanted armor. Trust me: it is a wonderful story of a people fighting for their freedom.
Sadly, it was clear that my (admittedly baseless) hopes were not to be fulfilled with Britannia as the opening title sequence, one that resembled an LSD trip set to 1960's Scottish troubadour Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man (a song I have since become fond of thanks to this show), made me suspect the show was going for something different, something more akin to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or the classic Vietnam War cinematic adaption, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. This hunch was supported by the early moments of the first episode where Britannia went to great lengths to show how Roman troops were terrified to the point of mutiny by the idea of setting foot on Celtic land rumored to be overrun with demons and magic. While I would have preferred a show more like House of the Wolfings, a Britannia built around madness and paranoia in an ancient land of unfathomable people got me nearly as excited. This looked to be good! But in practice, it wasn't. Well, that might be too strong as there is some pleasure to be had here, but the ultimate problem I had with Britannia was how the show was unable to decide just what it wanted to be. While there is a bit of House of the Wolfings and a bit of Heart of Darkness, ultimately Britannia limps into the barn resembling little more than a Game of Thrones or Vikings copycat with odds bits of humor throne in for good measure.
Despite all the early handwringing about the madness that awaited the Roman troops, the truth turns out to be something much more mundane. Instead of being greeted by slavering monsters that can swallow entire legions whole, what greets Rome is just a case of homespun politics involving one tribe of Celts attempting to overcome another tribe. Oh sure, there is some Druid mysticism mumbo-jumbo adding spice to this formula, but it is not particularly well developed and seemed more tacked on than well thought out to me (but more on that later). Instead, the bulk of Britannia subjects the audience to watching Roman general Plautius play the two Celt tribes - the Cantii and the Regni - against each other for convoluted reasons having to do with Plautius seeing himself as some sort of conquering demon. It was here that it became apparent that Britannia was criminally under-developing its potentially strongest asset, one initially screamed at us in the opening moments of the series: the otherworldly nature of the Celt people and the challenges of domesticating this wild realm. Rather than being presented as a mysterious and rebellious people with a strong cult of mysticism, both the Cantii and Regni are blandly presented as Romans of a different flavor. Heck, the show doesn't even suggest any sort of communication difficulties between the two as Romans and Celts freely converse amongst themselves without any apparent difficulty. While History Channel's Vikings has its fair share of problems, at least that show did an admirable job of bringing the distinctive Viking culture to life. After watching the entire first season of Britannia, I could not tell you one distinctive thing about the Celts. I couldn't even tell you one distinction between the Cantii or Regni as both are presented as copy-and-paste tribes who are at war for reasons the never transcend a simplistic grudge match over marriage ties (I am simplifying a bit to avoid some spoilers, but just a bit). This is, frankly, an unforgivable crime for a show supposedly based in history. I am not asking for hardcore historical narrative - I have long given up hope that any mainstream bit of entertainment will ever care for historical accuracy - but merely a show that demonstrates a modicum of concern for its subject matter. I hate to say it but I get the distinct impression Britannia was based on little more than a brief glance at a Wikipedia entry.
Now, Britannia does attempt to address the mysticism of the Celt people via the infamous Druids. Sadly, though, even here the show drops the ball as the Druids are presented as an almost cartoonish faction - complete with a leader who is made to look like the embodiment of Skeletor - who engage in the standard talk-in-riddles-make prophesies-sacrifice people-and-be-the-power-behind-the-throne stuff that is de rigueur Hollywood treatment for any sort of religion. It all comes across as rather silly and trite to be honest. When compared to, say, the seriousness with which Game of Thrones portrayed the "Lord of Light" cult, Britannia's presentation of an actual ancient religion looks all the more farcical by comparison. Frankly, instead of being presented with a haunted house, we instead get a fun-house mirror that distorts rather than terrifies. Now, this not to say that the various prophesies concerning demons and demi-goddesses does not become intriguing over the course of the first season - it does have its moments - but just that it is largely weak sauce that is overpowered by the mundane politics that drives the bulk of the narrative. What a missed opportunity to inject some true Heart of Darkness horror into the story!
Another strike against Britannia is that this is one of those all too common shows haunted by the spirit of Harvey Weinstein. Be prepared to have to suffer through quite a few ham-handed sex scenes that neither develop character nor advance the plot (quite the opposite, actually). It is really a shame that in the wake of the horror that the Weinsteins of the world have unleashed on actresses everywhere, we still have more than a few directors/producers who have no qualms about using their actresses as sexual playthings in their shows. Frankly, shows like Britannia make me wonder if the hashtag #MeToo is being interpreted by some in the entertainment industry as a cry of solidarity with Weinstein. Certainly shows like Britannia make me think so. Well, either that or we seem to have raised a crop of directors who secretly want to produce porn but lack the guts to just go and do it, so they sneak their predilections into shows like Britannia. Whatever the reason, add another strike against Britannia for its neanderthal ways.
The writing in Britannia - that is, the dialogue - was mediocre to poor. While I was not expecting Shakespearean verse or even Paul Kingsnorth'a "Shadow Tongue" from The Wake (that would be too daring for a modern show, I guess), I was at least expecting a Game of Thrones minimalist attempt to avoid street English whenever possible, such as when nobles converse. Nope. I had to guffaw a few times as thoroughly modern expressions made their way into the mouths of characters supposedly living almost two millennia ago (my favorite was when Phelan said he had a "typhoon" raging in his stomach, a meteorological term first coined 1500 years after the events of this story). I don't mean to be pedantic, but anybody with an ear for dialogue should have scratched such obvious anachronisms from the script. Of course, while the writing lacked any effort to elevate the dialogue, it wasted no opportunity to scatter vulgarities whenever possible, whether or not it sounded right coming from the mouth of a particular character (e.g., having young Cait scream an obscenity that was completely out of character for her - again, the Weinstein School of Filmmaking at work). Flat dialogue for flat characters.
One of the areas where I did think Britannia deserved a bit of praise was the cinematography. The show commendably invested some effort to find some absolutely stunning scenery that is truly evocative of what it must have been like to live in a time where nature was so vibrant that it infused the people themselves. Unfortunately, though, even here I have a bit of criticism as the land is never used as anything more than a pretty backdrop. One of the things that I loved about House of the Wolfings and Tolkien's various masterpieces was how both authors brought the metaphysical realism that dominated both the ancient and medieval periods to life by demonstrating how the land was a deep part of the people who lived on it; how it shaped their beliefs and practices at a fundamental level (Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake is another good example from contemporary literature). Even Peter Jackson's masterful cinematic adaption of Lord of the Rings managed to convey how important the land was beyond being mere property to fight over. Sadly, that metaphysical realism is rarely on display in Britannia, and when it does appear, it is only in the most superficial way possible.
Lastly, the acting is also good for the most part, even if the characters are themselves unimaginative. David Morrissey is entertaining as Roman general Aulus Plautius, but his performance as a scheming Roman with visions of glory dancing in his head has been done countless times before, from Laurence Olivier's excellent Crassus in Sparticus, to Ciarán Hinds' Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome. Mackenzie Crook's Skeletor-inspired Veran can be suitably scary if comic bookish at times, and Liana Cornell's goddess-possessed Ania is more often comical than compelling. Julian Rhind-Tutt's Phelan is so bland he might as well not be there, and his wife Amena, played by Annabel Scholey, aspires to be maniacal in a Cersei fashion but just comes across as a bumbling lush. Zoe Wanamaker's Queen Antedia is perhaps one of the most tired of all the cliched characters in Britannia as she plays the tough, old matriarch who swears like a sailor and deals death like an executioner. Yawn. (Attention Hollywood: this is a tired cliche that needs to be put to rest. Sure, we all snickered a bit when Betty White started swearing up a storm to get some easy attention, and we all loved how crotchety Maggie Smith was in Downton Abbey, but I think it is time that we moved on already.) Then we have Kelly Reilly's Kera, a role mostly notable for her abundant pulchritude. Seriously, this girl is a stunning Irish lass!
|She rode out of a fairy tale...|
I honestly don't know why I took the time to write this lengthy review of what is, at best, a mediocre series. Well, that is not entirely true. I DO know why I did so: because Britannia is a tragically wasted opportunity that should have been far better than what it was. A story about a legion of Roman troops sent to conquer a primeval land populated by magical Druids and wild Celts should pretty much write itself, be it by going down the historical fantasy path of House of the Wolfings or by the intriguing Heart of Darkness path of hell-spawned insanity. Yet somehow the creative team behind Britannia managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by halfheartedly attempting both, ultimately achieving neither, and just delivering "play it safe" Game of Thrones/Vikings copycatting with some humor. I am hoping that if this show gets a second season it will learn from its first season mistakes and kick off the next season with a hardcore focus on either the historical fantasy aspects or the Druid horror ones, and leave GoT's byzantine politics for others. I do have a bit of hope that this is where the show might be going as the final episode of Season One seemed to suggest that the narrative was going to focus less on banal politics and more on the Druid's otherworldly battle with evil demons. (There is even something that suggests it could all tie into the rise of Christianity in Rome itself, a very interesting twist to say the least!) Will I watch Season Two, assuming it is granted one? Probably. But Britannia is going to need to really wow me to hold me for much longer.
Stop walking in the well-worn tracks of other shows. That is not the way to rule, Britannia.
[I have reduced the score from C+ to C because I have noticed that I am already forgetting about this show. Not a good sign.]