Augustus (2003)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

I've been forced to do a lot of historical reading over the last few months as I've authored a novel set in Ancient Rome. The emperor preceding Tiberius, who was the commander of Rome during Jesus' lifetime, was Augustus. This miniseries is far from historically accurate, but is a fascinating retelling of the myths and facts surrounding some of history's most interesting characters.

There is discourse in Rome and many fear for the life of their emperor, Augustus (Peter O'Toole). In the midst of a crowd in the Forum, Augustus is struck by an assassin. Surviving because of a lead breastplate, he awakens the next morning nostalgic about his younger years as the nephew of the great Julius Caesar. Determined to live up to his uncle's expectations, Augustus (then called Octavius) journeys to the front on his deathbed. He is dangerously ill and his sister Octavia (Elena Ballesteros) pleads with him not to go. Together with his dear friend Agrippa (Ken Duken), he succeeds in aiding Caesar's forces to victory. They return to a Rome eager to crown Julius emperor, to the dissatisfaction of the power-hungry senate. Along the way, Augustus has gathered the support of the foppish but brilliant-minded Maecenas (Russell Barr), who aspires to have them all become powerful in Rome.

In the wake of Julius Caesar's assassination by the senate, Augustus reluctantly befriends Caesar's novice and strongest supporter, Marc Anthony (Massimo Ghini) in order to hunt down and destroy all those who were involved in his uncle's death. In the meantime, the people of Rome are starving. They are fighting wars on numerous fronts, and there is discourse in Egypt. While Mark attempts to soothe Egyptian rivalries, he finds greater pleasure in the bed of Queen Cleopatra (Anne Valle), leaving Augustus to command Rome. While reliving this story, Augustus attempts to persuade his dutiful daughter Julia (Vittoria Belvedere) into a political marriage with Tiberius (Michele Bevilacqua), would-be successor to Rome. The son of his scheming wife Livia (Charlotte Rampling), Augustus knows that the only protection that can be found for Julia's sons would be in the implication that their stepfather will become emperor with his death. But Julia is in love with the son of Marc Anthony, Augustus' sworn enemy.

A three-hour miniseries with an incredible budget, Augustus succeeds in being a compelling retelling of one of the most obscure figures in history, but doesn't hold up facts-wise when compared to Julius Caesar. Liberties have been taken for the sake of dramatic effect, and to smooth out Augustus' flaws. The film has two things going for it: the length of time it takes to unfold, and the fact that parts of the production were either filmed in another language, or the actors were unaccustomed to speaking English; often the facial gestures they make are wide and distracting. That's my only complaint, because otherwise it's spectacular. Ancient Rome unfolds before the viewer in all its equal splendor and misery.

The acting is great and the costume and set design will have any scholar of the era weeping for joy. There are numerous battle scenes, but they're not enough to dissuade female viewers, because there's a lot in-between of political rivalries, romantic entanglements, and devious schemes by jealous in-laws. I found the film fascinating. It's a very well-done production that doesn't forget to remind the viewer of one important thing: that during Augustus' reign there was born in the land of Judea a child whose name was Jesus.

Sexual Content:

Passionate kissing leads to a man inviting a woman to his bed. She doesn't accept. Men abuse a noblewoman and throw her to the ground, but she is saved by two soldiers. Marc Anthony is shown kissing and caressing Cleopatra in bed on several occasions, and makes remarks about finding the world more pleasurable from a position between her legs. Augustus encourages his daughter to marry Tiberius, but says if she can be discreet, she may keep her lover. Livia and he share romantic innuendo and banter. Cleopatra wears very little clothing; thong bottoms and ornate tops, with sheer cloaks over them. Tiberius follows Julia behind a curtain and rapes her (we hear her screaming). Maecenas kisses Augusts on the lips in friendship after an argument and is extremely effeminate: obsessed with clothing, fine wines, and his appearance. He once appears wearing only a loincloth.

Language:

None.  

Violence:

Many men are stabbed and killed, others shot with arrows, dragged from horses, and mowed down by being ridden through. Blood rarely spills.

Other:

Some paganism.