In his more fanciful moments, Judge Mitchell Hattaway thinks of himself as the Caesar of Central Georgia.
As the empire kneeled in defeat…one man stood in triumph.
The Italian miniseries Augustus chronicles the life of the same-named first emperor of Rome (born Gaius Octavius), and unfolds as a series of flashbacks narrated by the elder Augustus (Peter O'Toole, Troy). We see the young Octavius (Benjamin Sadler, Luther) leave his mother's farm and join his friend Agrippa (Ken Duken) on a journey to Rome; they eventually enlist in the army of Julius Caesar (Gerard Klein, Frantic), who is Octavius's uncle. Caesar selects his nephew as his heir, and Octavius is appointed to the Roman Consul after his uncle is murdered. Octavius forges an uneasy alliance with Marc Antony (Massimo Ghini, CQ), wipes out his political enemies, marries into a wealthy family, and gains influence with his peers. We also witness the creation of the ruling Triumvirate, see it fall apart as Antony turns his back on Rome and marries Cleopatra (Anna Valle), and watch as Octavius assumes the title of Augustus.
Events from the latter half of Augustus's life are also dramatized. The emperor and Livia (Charlotte Rampling, Angel Heart) coerce Julia (his daughter from an earlier marriage) and Tiberius (her son from her an earlier marriage) to wed—Augustus because he believes it will guarantee that the offspring of Julia (Vittoria Belvedere) and her late husband Agrippa will inherit the throne, and Livia because she secretly believes it will guarantee a seat of power for Tiberius (Michele Bevilacqua). Julia grows to resent her father for strong-arming her into the marriage, and Augustus's plans for Rome's future are soon threatened by the schemes of Iullus (Juan Diego Botto, 1492: Conquest of Paradise), who is the emperor's nephew, Julia's lover, and Marc Antony's son.
Augustus is well-paced, well-acted (for the most part), and fairly engrossing. Director Roger Young (Lassiter) keeps things moving at a steady clip, and doesn't let the exposition in the script by Eric Lerner (Bird on a Wire) get in the way of the action and intrigue. It's great fun to see O'Toole and Rampling together (their performances are reason enough to watch), and the rest of the cast isn't half-bad, either, with the exception of Russell Barr, whose Maecenas is a rather shameful homosexual stereotype. (Barr's performance reminded me of Howard Morris's role as Dom DeLuise's court spokesman in History of the World: Part 1, and that doesn't really work in this context.) Oh, and for those of you who care, Vittoria Belvedere and Anna Valle are incredibly easy on the eyes. (Yes, I'm shallow.)
There are a handful of things about Augustus that bother me. A few members of the international cast have been rather poorly dubbed, and at times this can be a big distraction. The scope of the miniseries is somewhat hampered by its budget; the visual effects can be downright awful at times (there are matte lines galore), and the battle scenes often look rather anemic. There are also a couple of unintentionally silly moments, such as the scene in which the aged O'Toole uses a pitcher of water to fight off men half his age. Quite a bit of needless dramatic license is taken, too (the timeline regarding Antony's suicide and the affair between Julia and Iullus, for example).
This DVD release of Augustus sports a very good transfer. Colors are bold and well-saturated; blacks are deep, and shadow detail is excellent. There's not much surround activity in the 5.1 audio mix, but the front soundstage is nice and wide, and there's some booming low-end action. Unfortunately, there are two big problems with the mix: The dialogue (especially the dubbed dialogue) is too often unintelligible, and Pino Donaggio's score too often overwhelms the other audio elements. The only extra you'll find on this disc is a trailer for this disc.
Despite its flaws, Augustus is a fairly engaging piece of historical entertainment. Just don't go in looking for much historical fact.
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