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Augustus: The First Emperor
cast: Peter O'Toole, Vittoria Belvedere, Charlotte Rampling, Anna Valle, and Benjamin Sadler

director: Roger Young

200 minutes (12) 2004
Prism Leisure DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
Opening with a haunting sequence depicting Augustus' final moments, this TV mini-series is an unusual combination of historical thriller and character study, focussing on the life of one of the Roman Empire's greatest rulers.

Fans of Rome will feel right at home here as the events leading up to Augustus' reign are told in flashback. With Peter O'Toole providing customarily authoritative narration, we see the young man travel to Rome, make friends with Marcus Agrippa and Maecanas, and make his mark on the battlefield and in politics. However, as his past glories are remembered it becomes clear that his present holds even greater obstacles.

O'Toole is far and away the best thing about the series. His recent forays into the historical field (Troy and the BBC's excellent Casanova) appear to have given him a taste for it and he's excellent as Augustus. His performance gives us an extremely rounded view of the man, running from the kindly old grandfather cheered to his palace by hundreds of adoring citizens, to the canny politician who sacrifices his daughter's happiness for the future of the Empire. Crucially as well, O'Toole never lets us forget that his Augustus is both old and tired, a man at the end of his life who is wracked by guilt, desperate for rest but seems unlikely to get either.

His performance is helped greatly by the structure of the mini-series. By contrasting his present with his past, we get a real sense of the journey the man has undergone. Each choice that takes Augustus closer to power takes him further away from the better aspects of his personality and the struggle between the two sides of his nature are neatly played by O'Toole, and by Benjamin Sadler as his younger self. Augustus is a hugely popular and successful leader but the question of whether or not he's a good man is one that the series asks again and again. Even as it closes, with Augustus listing his achievements it's painfully clear that they're all for the good of Rome and very few are for the good of his friends and family.

Whilst this high-minded approach to the material is to be applauded it isn't quite backed up by the performances. Several members of the cast appear to have been dubbed in postproduction with Richard Barr's performance as Maecanas coming off particularly badly. Similarly, some of the battles leave a lot to be desired, the series struggling to do a lot with a little and not always managing it. These problems aside, there's a lot to enjoy here. O'Toole and Sadler are excellent, Charlotte Rampling and Vittoria Belvedere are impressive as Augsutus' wife and daughter respectively, and the script is involving and clever. Well played and directed, this is a must for anyone interested in good historical drama.

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