Acorn Media // 1976 // 668 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // March 4th, 2012
Roman emperors and their families are perfect source material for an epic television event. Combine that with some of the best in British acting talent and you've got a series that earns its "classic" label.
It's impossible for any reviewer worth his salt to mention the name Derek Jacobi and not make passing reference to I, Claudius. I am obviously not worth my salt, because until now I had not seen it. So when the opportunity to review Acorn Media's 35th Anniversary collection arose, I jumped at the chance.
Produced by the BBC in 1976, this vintage historical miniseries spans 12 episodes, each bookended by scenes of and aging emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi, Gosford Park) writing the history of his intriguing family, so the world will know the truth. And what a twisted tale it is.
Our story begins during the reign of Augustus Caesar (Brian Blessed, Hamlet), his cunning wife Livia (Siân Phillips, The Age of Innocence) doing everything in her power (e.g. poisoning anyone who gets in her way) to ensure her son, Tiberius (George Baker, The Spy Who Loved Me), succeeds his father. Claudius manages to navigate these troubled times by playing up his stammer, limp, and head twitch, convincing the entire Imperial family he is a feeble-minded idiot.
The truth is Claudius is a survivor who needs all his tricks and skill to ride out the tyrannical rule of young Tiberius and his right hand man, Sejanus (Patrick Stewart, Macbeth). But even that will seem easy, when Tiberius' demented nephew and adopted son Caligula (John Hurt, The Elephant Man) takes power. Caligula declares himself a god, descending into a decadence Rome had never seen...and that's saying something. Eventually, the Imperial guard take matters into their own hands, removing Caligula from power and leaving old moronic Uncle Claudius as Emperor of the Western World. But fate still has a few more twists lying in wait.
Strangely enough, I, Claudius proves to be an excellent companion piece to HBO's brilliant series Rome. We exited this modern take on the Roman Empire at Augustus' rise to power, so coming into this vintage tale it feels like we already have some history with these characters. This helps a great deal, as I, Claudius throws us right into the action, with Roman references flying at us fast and furiously. It takes a while to get a handle on all the characters, but we soon find ourselves entrenched in this wicked family.
On the other hand, those well-versed in Rome may find I, Claudius' 1970s visual style quite jarring. The pacing is measured. The sets, costumes, and makeup are especially period. Even the camera work has a classic Doctor Who vibe. In many ways, I, Claudius feels like a filmed stage play, because the experience is quite theatrical. Mixing history, drama, and humor and drama, we get a series that completely entertains. A few scenes feel longer than they should be, but there is rarely a dull moment and the dialogue is so sharp you simply don't care. There is some subtlety here and there, but most performances fall just short of over-the-top. Brian Blessed booms and blusters, giving Flash Gordon's Prince Vultan a run for his money. Siân Phillips isn't just cunning and cruel, she's outright evil, sneering her lines and relishing in the lives she destroys. Even Jacobi's performance seems a bit artificial, his aging Claudius bookends failing to click. Part of it may be obvious make-up, but it all feels a little too much.
I Claudius has been previously released on DVD, but the treatment was less than stellar. Acorn gives the miniseries all the pomp and circumstance worthy of its 35th Anniversary. These are the complete UK broadcast episodes, not those trimmed by PBS for stateside consumption, which means there's a bit more blood and breasts than you may remember. We also get extended versions of the first two episodes as a bonus.
In terms of the visuals, we are provided with a warning upfront explaining that the quality is the best they could manage given the source material. Yes, the standard definition full frame transfer is far from flawless -- ghosting in the brighter scenes, detail is soft in others -- but given this is a 1976 television production, it looks damn good. In some cases, the visuals are a bit too clear, especially during closeups when you can see all the production seams. The Dolby 1.0 Mono track is equally accessible, although the farther from camera an actor may be, the more difficult it is for us to understand them. But that's where the SDH subtitles (sorely lacking in the previous version) come in handy.
As for bonus features, we get an impressive 74-minute behind-the-scenes look at this ambitious production from the point-of-view of cast and crew; a fun set of episode intros from the same cast and crew sharing their favorite moments; a 12-minute interview (excerpted from a longer conversation) with Derek Jacobi which is more about his career than anything else; and a 71-minute documentary, The Epic That Never Was, on the attempt to bring this tale to the big screen way back in 1937.
If you're a fan of period drama done in grand BBC style, I, Claudius is a can't miss experience. If you're thinking about upgrading from the previous release, the unedited episodes and new bonus material make it well worth the investment.
Not guilty. I wish all re-releases were this worthy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 668 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Episodes