THE BORGIAS “The Poisoned Chalice” & “The Assassin” Review

THE BORGIAS "The Poisoned Chalice" (Showtime)

THE BORGIAS “The Poisoned Chalice” & “The Assassin” Season 1 Episode 1 & Episode 2 – There are worse ways to spend a Sunday than listening to Jeremy Irons’ Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia scheming for the papacy to become the most powerful man in fifteenth century Europe. Of course, this is not just the dramatic tale of a man, but of a dynasty, even if these first two episodes seem to have forgotten this.

The juiciest thing about this series is the subject matter: the hypocrisy and corruption in the Catholic Church is second to none and with the Borgias at the helm the church became a breeding ground for venomous, dramatic intrigue. “Let him without children cast the first stone,” one of the group of gossiping cardinals comments, and it is a line near the beginning of the first episode which promised scandalous fun which, alas, was not to be.

Despite the lavish sets and the solid acting, this creation is lacking the bite one would hope for, despite its bloody good ending. The first two episodes, written and directed by creator Neil Jordan, keep the audience at arms’ length.

Irons may be the star of the show, but Francois Arnaud’s Cesare Borgia is the character on whom the audience latches-or rather, should latch. For a man who poisons a monkey (a monkey!) and has a weirdly semi-incestuous infatuation for his fourteen year old sister, Cesare is an absolute bore. Arnaud plays him straight laced and predictable when really this clergy son who wants military might is anything but.

The second son Juan (David Oakes) is slightly more interesting despite a serious lack of screentime: a buffoon, a scoundrel who is given command of the military. Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Grainger) is a simpering spoiled dainty thing who promises plenty of growth: she is smarter than she looks. Joanne Whalley’s performance as Pope Alexander VI’s betrayed wife and the mother of his children is a highlight in a show loaded with many top notch performances of treacherous cardinals. The best role is Sean Harris’ gloriously unpredictable and decidedly unbalanced (hello whipping) assassin.

The first two episodes spent most of its time establishing the character and the world. It did quite a good job of this and I hope now that that business is out of the way the show evolves from a Jeremy Irons’ performance vehicle and into something far more gleefully nefarious: something more like I, Claudius and less like The Tudors.

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