Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Rome once controlled most of the civilized world, in a vast empire that stretched across Europe and brought into enslavement the peoples from Rome itself to Egypt. In the years prior to the rise of Julius Caesar, a slave created an uprising that brought Rome to her knees, and has lived on in the history books ever since. That slave was named Spartacus.
With the forces of the Roman army ravaging their way throughout enemy lands, millions of people are taken into slavery for the empire. Among them is Spartacus (Goran Visnjic) whose heavy-built form and natural skill with the sword make him a formidable gladiator. Thrust in among other equally talented and ambitious men, he learns that he must fight and kill his opponents for the pleasure of the mob. His owner Lentulus Batiatus (Ian McNeice) is a proud and arrogant man accustomed to having whatever he wants, particularly the most beautiful women from the slave circuit. His most recent purchase is the willful Varinia (Rhona Mitra), who becomes enthralled with Spartacus when he proves that he is not brutal like most other men. Given Varinia to console his manly urges the night before he is to fight, Spartacus does not touch her ... then, or any of the nights that follow. Their friendship develops into romance as he becomes one of the most renowned gladiators in the ring.
Respected by his fellow slaves and befriended by a silent Jew by the name of David (James Frain), Spartacus is content in his newfound home ... until Marcus Crassus (Angus Macfadyen) and his mistress come in search of bloody sport. They are willing to pay a large amount of money to see two sets of gladiators slaughter one another to death in the ring. Spartacus is one of those chosen, but rather than kill him, his battle companion makes an attempt on the life of Crassus. His corresponding violent death enrages Spartacus to the point of rebellion. Creating an uprising among the slaves that threatens the very balance of Rome, and shifts power between Crassus and his staunchest opposition, Agrippa (Alan Bates), Spartacus must maintain his leadership in an unstable time of bloodlust and enslavement.
There are some excellent attributes to this recent remake of the original film from the 1960's. Its most worthwhile element is the fact that this Spartacus is much more likable, despite the numerous errors of judgment he makes when it comes to dealing with his enemies. I appreciated the fact that the miniseries chose to explore even in passing his more moral beliefs, including his reluctance to sleep with Varinia out of wedlock. The two exchange heartfelt vows to one another in a private ceremony before becoming intimate. That point aside, some of the other acting fell flat. Crassus is bloodthirsty, but Macfadyen simply does not have the power of influence that Olivier brought to the role. The costuming and set design were all very good, but I became a bit tired of it forty minutes before the end and fast-forwarded a lot of the action sequences.
It's a pleasure for me to watch any film set in this time in history, due to my fascination with Julius Caesar. I appreciated the fact that Pompey and Caesar were both briefly introduced and that it was historically accurate in many of its details. But the heightened sexual humiliations were tiresome, and might have been handled with more discretion. Still, it has its rewarding moments, the final scenes of Varinia and Crassus among them. No one who has ever seen this story in any form will ever forget Spartacus.
Heavy implications in the opening scene that Varinia and her female friends are raped by soldiers on the front. She is forced to reveal her breast (implied, but not shown) at a slave auction. Batiatus attempts to rape her, but she fights back. It's unknown whether he later succeeded, after slapping her across the face. Women are released into the men's quarters every night before a fight. In a particularly humiliating and uncomfortable scene, Crassus' mistress intimates she wants to see if the Jew has been circumcised. David is forced to disrobe before her, and the camera catches his bare backside.
Gladiators are murdered in the arena, the most graphic being the multiple impalement of a rebellious slave. His body is hung out on the iron fence, spikes still embedded in his back, to warn others against an uprising. Spartacus and his army show no pity for their enemies, leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them. Slaves are shown knifing a woman and her companion to death. There are many graphic battle scenes, and some brutality toward women.