Netflix UK TV review: Roman Empire: Reign of Blood
Ivan Radford | On 15, Nov 2016
In a world where Netflix originals seem to arrive every other day, the streaming giant’s latest new series slipped online with barely a whisper last weekend. Called Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, it certainly sounds impressive – after all, it has all your favourite words in the title. But the more you watch, the more you realise why it hasn’t been trumpeted around like Stranger Things or the Gilmore Girls reunion: in short, it’s a bit rubbish.
The six-part series charts the rise and fall of Commodus, the Roman Emperor who effectively brought about the end of the Roman Empire. Of course, we all know Commodus, right? He was that guy played by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. But Gladiator this ain’t, for better and for worse.
Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning epic was exactly the kind of history that Hollywood likes: low on accuracy, high on drama. Reign of Blood helps to address the balance slightly, correcting the score when it comes to the film’s claim that Commodus killed his dad, Marcus Aurelius, with a pillow. With historians such as Corey Brennan and Tom Holland on board, the show’s factual weight carries some clout. Even Commodus’ hair is (correctly) blonder than Phoenix’s.
But if Reign of Blood wins the battle of relative accuracy, it loses the fight to be entertaining. Ironically, that’s because it tries to hard to be; rather than simply be a documentary, this is a docudrama, which means that you get none of the fun of either form.
Documentaries are fantastically versatile beasts, with the open-ended potential for creative presentation allowing for everything from Man on Wire to The Imposter. Docudramas, too, can be gripping, from Captain Philips and An Adventure in Time and Space to Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday. Reign of Blood, though, makes the fatal error of thinking that documentaries require talking heads, cutting from historians chatting to camera to dramatic re-enactments on period sets.
Despite the odd bit of dodgy CGI, the production design is commendable, with crowd scenes cleverly made to look more expansive than the show’s budget allows and battle sequences effectively done. The dialogue, though, makes your average primary school play look professional. “It’s good to take a break from the Roman Empire with this simple, private, social lunch,” says Marcus Aurelius, speaking in the authentic manner of someone centuries ago on another planet where they don’t talk like humans.
There’s interest to be found in the arc of Commodus’ bizarre career in power, as he decided to take to the gladiatorial arena himself, often presenting himself as a god to his subjects, in the hope of winning their support. The stashing away of grain, seemingly by Cleander, to curry favour with the people has equal potential for political intrigue, not to mention the betrayal of Commodus’ sister. But when people say things like “Why are we here?” “Emperor, we are here for the glory of Rome!”, any chance of authenticity is immediately scuppered. It’s a world away from the series typically boasting the Netflix brand. The introduction of copious sex scenes is one of the only signs that this is produced by the streaming service, where usual broadcasting restrictions do not apply, but even they don’t inject much excitement into proceedings.
The show’s saving grace is hiring Sean Bean to narrate events, presumably in the hope of bringing some Game of Thrones-worthy gravitas. His northern accent and gravelly warmth shouldn’t be underestimated; we’d gladly listen to him recount the entire history of the Roman Empire without any visuals at all. But alas, even Sean Bean’s impact is reduced: sandwiched between the talking heads and the actors doing their best with the ropy script, his narration frequently feels redundant, as he’s essentially left to say out loud what we should be able to fathom from the actors’ faces and actions; it’s like having an audio description permanently switched on, but one that makes things less accessible. Unable to decide whether to focus on “docu” or “drama”, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood is a strange halfway house between the two that is frequently frustrating and rarely enjoyable. What a missed opportunity this is.
Roman Empire: Reign of Blood is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.