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Augustus

Year: 2003

Run Time: 178 minutes

Cast: Peter O'Toole, Charlotte Rampling, Vittoria Belvedere, Anna Valle, Benjamin Sadler, Ken Duken, Martina Stella, Valeria D'Obici, Michele Bevilacqua, Riccardo De Torrebruna, Giampiero Judica, Vanni Materassi, Elena Ballesteros, Gérard Klein, Achille Brugnini, Alexander Strobele, et al.

Director: Roger Young

DVD Features

  • Full Frame (1.33)
  • Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
  • Trailers: Augustus, 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Jason & the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Warriors of Heaven and Earth

Synopsis

The time and place are ancient Rome. The strife of civil war threatens the Republic. Caesar sends for his nephew, Octavius, who arrives in Rome with his friend Agrippa. After a brief stay in the city they set off to join Caesar at the front and the rest, as they say, is history. Or at least the deathbed ramblings of a dying Emperor, as this entire movie is framed as a series of flashbacks within flaskbacks.

Starring Peter O'Toole. .

Who has played a number of historical Roman figures over the years from Emperor Tiberius Caesar in the infamously atrocious Caligula to General Cornelius Flavius Silva in the TV miniseries Masada and Charlotte Rampling (Zardoz, The Night Porter) with an adequate supporting cast. Augustus- an joint British-Italian miniseries originally called Imperium: Augusto, or Augustus the First Emperor- recounts the story of Gaius Octavius, how he came to be adopted by Julius Caesar as his son and went on to become Rome's first Emperor.

Historicity

Given this is a miniseries about Rome in general, and the rise of it's first Emperor, Augustus (Gaius Octavius) in specific, there is a bit of frustration for one hardly gets the feel for the decaying Roman Republic and it's decadent corruption much less a sense of why Augustus rose to prominence to become it's first Emperor. His rise to greatness is depicted more as a series of accidental happenstances that left him in positions of power despite himself. This is perhaps where the script is weakest for all it's inane dialogue and attempts at wittiness it does not resonate with plausibility.

While a window into the internal family intrigues and certain extra political machinations exists, they are cursory at best. Worse, many of the situations we do get a glimmering glance of are either contrived or downright ludicrous; the throwaway scenes between Mark Anthony and Cleopatra come particularly to mind.

I'm guessing a large part of the problem is that dialogue sounded witty on paper but, when spoken aloud, no one had the 'nads to say how bad it sounded and ask for a rewrite. Too, the scattershot treatment of events and sudden cameo appearances of personages is bound to confuse those who don't know anything about Roman history. While some answers are hinted at we do not get a feel for the real moral decay and political inadequacies of the Republic that drove Augustus the reformer. I was utterly dumbfounded by the kid glove soap opera treatment given to this tumultuous transitionary period of the Rome's debauched history. Yet there is something about the understated presentation of events that holds one's interest until the very end.

Alas it is not until the very end when the narrators voice speaks for the last time we hear the import of Augustus' reign. Alas those last words, which feel tact on as an afterthought, do little to manifest the true import of this Emperor or the time period. Then again one would assume that's what the preceding three hours should have been about! There's even a throwaway line in the end narration about how, by the way, during Augustus reign Jesus Christ was born in Judea. Including this tidbit as a throwaway footnote at the end of the movie seems a bit disingenuous as it comes off sounding like a petulant barb. Then again that's just one of many churlish throwaway lines in this feature that left me scratching my head.

Availability

While it would appear Augustus has received a DVD release in each of the major regions certain of those releases may contain slight differences. According to IMDB dot com the R2 UK PAL release runs 177 minutes while the Spanish DVD clocks in at a mere 161 minutes, which could indicate significant cuts when considering differences in video formats FPS rates. However it should be noted there are actually two different UK releases. Amazon UK lists a runtime of 200 minutes for the classification 15 DVD release but lists the 177 minute version as carrying a classification 12. Then there is the German release, which clocks in at 168 minutes (also R2 PAL), is FSK 12, but comes as a two DVD special edition with a booklet, making of documentary, and other extras. As if that isn't bad enough ratings differ from region to region, though most releases appear to bear the equivalent of an PG-13 rating, whereas the U.S. release is rated R for "some war violence" that really isn't all that violent. However the Australian release (R4 PAL, 172 minutes) carries an "M 15+" (mature) classification so they, at least, would seem to agree with the MPAA rating. Alas ratings can only tell you so much, and most of that is guesswork since standards for rating content are not universal.

Appraisal

Historical dramas, costume epics in particular, are probably a close second favorite of mine after (good) science fiction. Alas seldom are lengthy period TV productions or mini-series as compelling as Augustus. There have been notable exceptions such as I, Claudius. However while Augustus reminded me at times of that miniseries they are worlds apart. By comparison I, Claudius is a epic miniseries event (it runs over 600 some odd minutes) whereas Augustus is a mere Cliff's notes glossalia that comes across more as a watered down Gladiator imitation sans the gladiators.

Does Augustus take liberties with historical events? It sure does. Is it a tad sluggish? Yes. Is it half as good as the previously mentioned movies? Maybe.

For the most part the departures are presented within the framework of a solid narrative that builds a gripping story. However that story takes a while to develop and there's a lot of bumps along the way. Knowledge of the basic key historical personages and their relevance will be helpful.

The movie is largely carried by the powerful screen presence of Peter O'Toole, who tells the story as the elder Augustus with events seen in flashback. Worth looking forward to are the lively interplay from alluring seductress Charlotte Rampling playing the poisonously scheming Livia Drusilla. .

And Anna Valle, Miss Italy 1995, portraying (all too briefly) the devious enchantress Cleopatra. .

Sadly the miniseries itself takes a while to really build up steam. The battle scenes border on anemic and are rather feeble affairs shot in close up in a blatant attempt to hide the fact it's only a few dozen poorly choreographed day players milling about, but thankfully the battle scenes are few and far between. Which brings us to the next big problem; there aren't enough battle scenes! Granted that may be a good thing since whoever staged them seemed to know nothing about basic legionnaire battle formations or tactics. What's worse Augustus is corpse bloated with talk.

The script needed tightening up, there should have been more action and less chatter, and more of the moral and political decay rotting the heart and soul of the Republic should have been shown; if only so modern audiences can have a point of reference to understand the true scope of the internal struggles that the transition of Rome the Republic to Rome the Empire entailed. This is supposed to be the story of the FIRST Roman Emperor after all!

Epics, even the miniseries variety, need good action sequences. Augustus not only lacks the sort of action you'd expect of an epic about Rome it tries to fill the silence with endless nattering dialogue. Considering how much time is already given over to the elder Augustus for narrative one wonders at the excessive chattiness. This is a MOVIE not a book on tape!

Final Thoughts

Aside from the fact this felt at times like two incomplete movies squished together Augustus wasn't all bad. Not enough spectacle. Not enough time spent on presenting Rome as the background character she should have been. Too much talk. I wanted to see more, expected there to be more, and was rather disappointed at how major events and characters were treated as little more than glossalia; their screen presence a mere flicker. Yet, as a deathbed tale told in flashbacks, O'Toole manages to transcend the purely staid historicity of the events and allows us to see the fragile humanity of the historical figure. While the second hour and a half picked up the dramatic tempo the first half suffered from uneven pacing. Otherwise great costumes for a TV miniseries, though the matte effects could have been better, the video and audio presentation is crisp and clear.

Considering some of the really awful atrocities hacks have perpetrated in recent decades I'm going to cut Augustus some slack. Especially since it really is hard to find a docu-drama TV miniseries that bears even a passing resemblance to historical fact. Augustus manages to be entertaining, if nothing else, and that fact alone makes its other minor sins forgivable if not forgettable.

However I do have one unwavering complaint. There was no indication this was a made for TV miniseries on the DVD sleeve, much less that it was part of a continuing series of TV movies about Rome during the Julio-Claudian period. Such a minor, if nonetheless annoying, lie of omission is evidence of sheer laziness on the part of the distributor more than anything else. Here we have a British-Italian miniseries import and there's no mention of the fact on the DVD sleeve? It's a minor gripe but don't let that gripe keep you from renting this. At least there were trailers.

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Copyright © C. Demetrius Morgan

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