Is Neil Jordan’s lavish TV drama, The Borgias, just a gangster drama in disguise? Donal O’Donoghue reports

Sky Atlantic, Saturday

For many years, the Oscar-winning Irish film-maker Neil Jordan toiled on the screenplay for an epic movie, chronicling the rise and fall of a notorious 15th-Century Italian family. The finished script translated into hours of screen time and a potentially studio-busting budget. DreamWorks bought the rights and at various stages, big-name actors (most notably, Colin Farrell) were rumoured to be attached. But it lay dormant for years, until Steven Spielberg stepped in, suggested TV and hey presto, we have The Borgias, a major mini-series that arrives with the tagline, ‘The Original Crime Family’.

Now all paths lead to Rome, or more precisely Hungary, where season two of the blood and sandals drama is currently being shot by Jordan for 2012. “I must be one of the luckiest people in the world”, the film-maker told me last January. “Just when the independent film industry hit such a huge crisis, I asked Dreamworks, who own the rights to The Borgias, to look at it again. Steven Spielberg looked at it and he said ‘why don’t we try and make this as one of those cable shows?’ In many ways, movies are not the best medium to express complex historical material because they have to be dramatic, short and visceral. So I just began to expand the first 13 pages of the script that I had written and suddenly I had two episodes.”

I recently watched those first two episodes (‘The Poisoned Chalice’ and ‘Assassin’), which Jordan also directed. Although the show’s lavish production values, elaborate setpieces and gallery of rogues recalls such recent period costume dramas as Camelot and The Tudors, in this case, the truth is stranger and bloodier than fiction. If the Borgias didn’t exist, Hollywood would have invented them by now – such is their history. Indeed their story has been told, on the big screen and small, a number of times in the past, most notably in the 1981 BBC mini-series of the same name. Presumably it’s the intoxicating cocktail of politics, power, sex and religion (or ‘Sex. Power. Murder. Amen’, as another tagline for the show puts it) that makes the tale so attractive to film-makers and novelists (The Godfather author Mario Puzo’s final novel, The Family, was all about the corrupt Roman clan).

But if the Borgias are the original crime family – and that claim has as much to do with the spin of marketing as the sureness of history – then they are more Corleone than Soprano. Indeed the second episode, ‘Assassin’, pays homage to an infamous blood-soaked scene from The Godfather. With such a rich reservoir of material, Jordan is spoiled for choice, and it shows.

The Borgias starts slow – a melodrama weighed down by history – as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia connives, bribes and manipulates his way to the top job at the Vatican. Even before the dying Pope Innocent VIII shuffles off to meet his maker – an encounter the bewhiskered pontiff is not anticipating with any great joy – the cardinals are already contemplating their opening gambits. Sequestered in conclave to vote for a successor, the red-tops go about their clerical duties like mobsters auditioning for a movie: and the intrigue is orchestrated with shifty looks, dark mutterings on shadowy corridors and parchment promises smuggled within the Holy See’s walls via ingenious means.

Luckily there’s Jeremy Irons, who even at half-speed keeps it all together: that once-beautiful face, now darkened by age, reflecting decadence and conflict (although a nod-and-wink confessional sequence borders on the cartoon). After he dons the papal crown, he banishes his ageing mistress (Joanne Whalley) from his bedroom because it’s good for the image. He grapples, briefly, with his conscience before deciding it would be much easier, and more enjoyable, to grapple with a local young beauty.

And so it goes, more West Wing than The Sopranos, as plots thicken, blood congeals and loyalties are broken. This is Irons’ first TV series since his career-making role as Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited (1981) and he feasts on it. In one recent interview, he likened Rodrigo Borgia to Bill Clinton and elsewhere compared The Vatican in the early 1500s with Washington DC in 2011. “It’s a powerhouse with a lot of infighting, a lot of shuffling around for power and a lot of foreign policy”, he said of the ancient papal regime. “There are great parallels with modern power structures, whether it’s Putin and the Kremlin, Berlusconi and Rome or Bush and America. A desire for power is a desire for power.” And Irons’ pontiff is a man whose desire for power overrides everything else.

Apart from Irons’ scheming pontiff, the other highlight of the opening episodes is a weasel-eyed assassin (played with compelling economy by Sean Harris) who shifts sides as soon as he gets a whiff of how the winds of change are blowing. Hopefully, we’ll see more of this Michelotto Corella, a man with a heart as black as his eyes, because Harris gives a performance that outshines the other more stellar names, including Derek Jacobi, no stranger to the blood and bondage of Rome. He plays Cardinal Orsini: a man who has the Borgias in his sights. Or there’s Steven Berkoff, as the righteous preacher Savonarola, who may have bitten off more than he can chew. The question is has Neil Jordan?

When Showtime commissioned a second series last April, and with The Borgias recently nabbing Six Emmy nominations, including one for Best Direction, it would appear that Jordan is indeed a lucky man. But The Borgias, which looks great – as you would expect from a man who gave us such layered and lavish productions as The Company of Wolves and Interview with the Vampire – has yet to convince. However, with Sean Harris steeped in blood and Rodrigo in danger of losing his marbles, the show is only likely to get bloodier and better.

Meet the Family: The Borgias

Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons)

When white smoke signalled he had won the keys to the Kingdom, Rodrigo Borgia (soon to be Pope Alexander VI) had already sired four children by his mistress, Vanozza Dei Cattanei. His notorious reign was riddled by charges of simony, incest and nepotism and the soundtrack to his career was that of torture, execution and murder. As played by Oscar-winner Irons, Rodrigo’s rare moments of doubt and indecision are swiftly buried by a ruthless allegiance to his family and his lustful desire for power and flesh.

Vannozza Dei Cattanei (Joanne Whalley)

Rodrigo’s mistress may have been banished from the Papal bedchamber, but her power over her wayward man is still formidable as she keeps track of his liaisons and counsels him on his indiscretions. Whalley plays Vanozza as a woman not to be trifled with, not even by the most powerful man in Christendom.

Cesare Borgia (François Arnaud)

Rodrigo’s eldest son is also his most trusted lieutenant. Useful with a blade – and in later life a brilliant military strategist – he watches his father’s back (and front) like a hawk, regularly offering advice and doing the dirty work to keep the wolves at bay. He also keeps a close and covetous eye on his sister, Lucrezia.

Juan Borgia (David Oakes)

Cesare’s younger brother – arrogant, dashing, vain, ruthless, etc. – was also an incorrigible skirt-chaser. According to history, Juan (or Giovanni) was his father’s favoured son and was rewarded with promotion, property and a papal fiefdom. In the end, however, Juan was murdered by person(s) unknown and his body was dumped in the Tiber. The suspects were many but the prime one was his brother Cesare.

Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Grainger)

Was 14-year-old Lucrezia more sinned against than sinning? Some historians would have us believe that she was a serial poisoner and mistress of political intrigue. In Jordan’s drama, Lucrezia is a precocious 14-year-old, coy and manipulative, but whose innocence is suspect, if those loaded looks she exchanges with her brother are any indication.

Joffre Borgia (Aiden Alexander)

The youngest and the most innocent of Rodrigo’s first family (he had a second!) was wedded to Sancia – an arranged marriage to further strengthen the Borgia’s power base. However, both his older brothers were to bed his wife.