Roman holiday is a bad trip – Britannia: Season 1 (Blu-Ray Review)

A psychedelic voyage into divinity, folklore and imperialism, Britannia is that story you’ve been told before, told differently. It is a series that takes a heavy dose of artistic freedom in its brazen portrayal of a real historical context. The Romans did invade Britain in AD 43, led by Aulus Plautius, with future emperor Vespasian among his ranks; and the Cantii and Regni were Celtic tribes with warring leaders. But Britannia is one history lesson you won’t have been taught in school.

Its historical basis surrounds the Roman conquest of Britain that began in AD 43. On the isle, there is already a war raging between the Cantii and the Regni – two Celtic tribes seeking to gain control of the southern region (though both are acting under the watchful eye of the sacred Druids). With the arrival of the Romans, all three of the native factions see an opportunity for longevity – and one which can finally trigger the demise of their respective rivals. But whilst his jittery troops seek only to invade and occupy this eerie territory, general Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey) has his own arcane agenda.

Unfairly slated by many to be a Game of Thrones rip-off, Britannia certainly seeks to stand on its own two feet (if perhaps leaning slightly on the shoulder of the HBO behemoth). Such is the success of Thrones, it seems any new historical fantasy is going to be in danger of these comparisons, especially in the wake of its approaching conclusion in 2019.

There is a likeness, no question. Beyond its housing by Sky Atlantic (the UK home of Thrones), Britannia also features witchcraft, warring factions, and a certain young outcast forced to fend for herself. But it has its own ideas too – its own vision, its own creative stamp on a historical context. For all its filmmaking potential, Roman Britain has remained vastly unexplored in popular culture (though it has birthed dismal results whenever it has been). In this respect, Britannia has a lot of storytelling freedom – not bound by exhausted depictions of the period, and long enough ago to be allowed certain historical liberties. And it’s what it does with this freedom that makes the series so distinctive.

Distinction, however, only goes so far. Attempting to follow multiple characters, locations and plot threads at once will always pose a challenge – and while the likes of Thrones have thrived on their ambitious scopes, it has proven the downfall for many other would-be contenders (see: The Walking Dead). Britannia’s first few episodes seem overwhelmed by its numerous threads, and I immediately thought a more focused episodic structure would benefit the series enormously. To its credit, it eventually realises this – and it’s no surprise that once it does (roughly between episodes 4-6) that Britannia finally comes into its own. Its scope is limited to largely one thread per episode, and the quality of its content is enormously richer for it.

The Roman conundrum is initially a very interesting storyline to follow. Arriving in this new land of great mystique and eeriness, the troops’ fear and inner turmoil as they are forced to confront the reality of divinity – what is faith, who are these innumerable gods – is one of the series’ greatest strengths. Yet the Roman subplots quickly become the most boring of all – the story dragged along by poorly-written skits that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a Kevin Hart buddy flick.

Exempt from this, however, is David Morrissey’s Aulus. One of the finest thespians of his generation, Morrissey gives Aulus a towering authority – charm and charisma, but a menacing and dangerous ambition bubbling beneath his exterior. His headstrong personality and personal agenda brings Aulus into frequent conflict with right-hand man Lucius (Hugo Speer), and this relationship unravels to a thrilling climax.

Above all, it is Kelly Reilly who emerges as the true star – initially the rebellious daughter of the King of the Cantii, Pellenor (played characteristically menacingly by Ian McDiarmid), before being unwillingly thrust into leadership herself. Ever since outperforming Michael Fassbender in the tragically underseen Eden Lake, Reilly has once more proved that she really does merit more leading roles. Though this has sadly been to little avail, she will surely emerge from Britannia a highly-coveted talent.

A quasi-bureaucratic faction of pale junkies, the Druids sadly never really break out of their tired cliché. Mackenzie Crook is effectively creepy as their cryptic leader, Veran, though he ultimately rarely escapes from what is a very Mackenzie Crook performance.

The Druid outcast, Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), has clearly been posited as the crux of the entire series – and so one might naturally expect a certain weight from his character. Regrettably, Divis transpires to be Britannia’s defining weakness. For the most part, Kaas does not have the charisma that such a role invariably needs to work, with his derivative love/hate relationship with the young Cait (Eleanor Worthington Cox) a major disappointment. Divis’ tussling with the demon god Pwykka eventually gives Kaas something proper to grapple with – but the development is too short-lived to rescue the performance from mediocrity.

Whilst we do occasionally visit the Regni, led magnificently by Zoë Wanamaker, our gaze is mostly allied with the Cantii. Their quarry-based citadel, Crugdunon, is a staggering feat of both production design and restrained visual effects – and it follows that the most astonishing shots in the series tend to take place here.

It might be a precarious comparison to make, given their own historical inspiration, but the visual style of Britannia at times echoed that of video games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and the Elder Scrolls series. Indeed, the zany hallucination sequences certainly kindles a computerised aesthetic. The series also evokes shades of Mad Max in its burnt orange colour palette – not to mention the Druid ‘War Boys’.

Britannia honestly does have a great series in it, and I’ll be eager to see where it goes next with its confirmed second season. It’s a valiant effort at debauched history, but for now I’ll stick with the Mary Beard.

Created by: Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth, James Richardson

Prd: Rick McCallum

Scr: Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth, Richard McBrien

Starring: David Morrissey, Kelly Reilly, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Ian McDiarmid, Mackenzie Crook, Zoë Wanamaker, Eleanor Worthington Cox, Hugo Speer, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Daniel Caltagirone, Annabel Scholey, Stanley Weber, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Zaqi Ismail

Country: UK, USA

Original network: Sky Atlantic (UK, Ireland), Amazon Prime Video (US)

Year: 2018

No. of Episodes: 9

Episode Run Time: 1×60 mins, 8×45 mins