Latest proof that western civilisation is over: Sky Atlantic's Domina reviewed

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

29 May 2021

9:00 AM


Sky Atlantic

I’ve been looking at the reviews so far of Sky’s new Romans series Domina and none seems to have noticed the most salient point: it’s crap. This is almost more depressing than the fact that the series got made in the first place, for what it suggests is this: our culture is now so debased that even our arbiters of taste can no longer tell the difference between quality and mediocrity.

Domina follows the story of Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, from when he was a member of the triumvirate to his apotheosis as Caesar Augustus. You’d think you couldn’t possibly go wrong with such fascinating historical material, rich with gore, scheming, politicking, backstabbing and will to power. But Dominasays: ‘Hold my cervisia!’ and renders it dreary beyond endurance.

Instead of viewing these events from Augustus’s perspective (men, eh, what did they ever do for us?) we instead see them from the perspective of his wife Livia Drusilla. According to Tacitus, she was a nasty piece of work: ‘A blight upon the nation as a mother, a blight upon the house of Caesar as a stepmother.’ And, as played by Siân Phillips in the 1970s TV adaptation of I, Claudius, she was a vicious, manipulative cow. But in Domina, she is reinvented as a generic, empowered woman, such as we should all admire and emulate. At any moment, you expect one of the characters, perhaps her African ex-slave companion Antigone, to say: ‘You go, girl!’

You might think I jest, but characters do say things like ‘wow!’. They also swear an awful lot. The first episode feels a bit like Skins, only in togas, with good-looking, edgy yoof — no doubt the products of London’s finest private schools — whoring, lusting, enjoying oral sex, swaggering and killing like the spoiled Roman rich kids they are.

This makes it sound like a Roman version of Game of Thrones, which would be great, if it were, but it isn’t. Thrones, even though it was sword-and-sorcery nonsense, was handled with absolute conviction and integrity: when Lena Headey played Cersei Lannister, she might just as easily have been playing Cleopatra in the golden era of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

But maybe a more apposite comparison would be the series Rome (an HBO co-production with, astonishingly, the BBC), which covered the period just prior to the one in Domina. Like Domina, it didn’t stint on the prurient details of upper-class life in Rome: the way, for example, you’d shag your household slaves with casual insouciance, perhaps while discussing the evening’s dinner arrangements with your wife. The key difference was that this production was the purest class. Remind yourself of Rome’s cast list — Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar, Lindsay Duncan, Polly Walker, Kenneth Cranham, not forgetting James Purefoy’s at once adorably and hatefully cocksure Mark Antony — and you could almost weep for what we have lost. It ended less than 15 years ago (it ran from 2005 to 2007), but it belongs to an entirely different civilisation.

The acting in Domina is serviceable but rarely better than that. Young Livia is played well enough by Nadia Parkes, then her English accent changes into a foreign one as Polish-Italian actress Kasia Smutniak takes over, and you think ‘English-Italian co-production here we come’. It’s all a bit ropey, uneven, almost there but not quite.

I found myself particularly irritated by the seemingly endless childbirth scenes. Did the writers think the female perspective required them to include fewer battles (no Philippi, I couldn’t help noticing) and more scenes of screeching women, writhing in agony, then looking aghast at the invariably stillborn bundle? Certainly, speaking as a chap, even a little of this stuff goes a very long way. But do even women viewers like being put through all this trauma? I doubt it.

Oh, and naturally, because the rise of Rome’s first and greatest emperor clearly isn’t nearly interesting enough to carry a whole TV series, various more exciting subplots have been inserted to make it more relatable and entertaining for the discerning modern viewer: the one where Antigone gets resold into slavery in a brothel and has to be rescued by a vengeful Livia (You go, girls!); the one where Livia’s son is stillborn not because miscarriages were quite common but, obviously, because jealous Scribonia put a witch’s spell on her.

We’re not going to get another I, Claudius, are we? We’re not even going to get another Rome. It’s all over for western civilisation — and Domina is but the latest proof.

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