Entertainment & Arts

Will Gompertz reviews Sky Atlantic's drama Britannia ★★★☆☆


The first episode of Britannia is more confusing than a technical lecture on Bitcoin delivered in Mandarin by someone with a partial grasp of both subject and language.

Characters are introduced at a rate that makes speed-dating look like a form of courtship, storylines are scattered as if seeds to the wind, and the overuse of sweeping drone shots of fields and gorges left me reaching for a travel sickness pill.

All of this while indistinguishable tattooed blokes with long hair go at each other hammer-and-tongs in a blood bath overflowing with gore.

At this early stage it didn't feel so much like an epic fantasy to compete with Game of Thrones, more an ancient version of Rugby Special.

We're in Britain, AD43.

A Roman army of 20,000 troops led by General Aulus Plautius (who looks like Ed Balls but is actually David Morrissey) has invaded our Scepter'd Isle to do what Caesar couldn't; that is, to tame, tax, and take control.

Image copyright Sky Atlantic
Image caption David Morrisey as the ruthless Roman general, Aulus Plautius

This time around the competition doesn't appear to be up to much.

The two main tribes are too busy fighting each other to care about foreign invaders, while the Druids are preoccupied with inhaling vast quantities of weed and just being plain weird.

There is also an outcast (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who howls at the moon and runs about, but what could one dishevelled loony do against the might of Rome (the top brass of which have been ordered to speak like Russell Crowe in Gladiator)?

Not a lot you'd think.

Image copyright Sky Atlantic
Image caption Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Divis, once a Druid, who has fallen out of favour

But then as the writer Jim Thompson once said about the art of telling tales, 'there is really only one story, and that is nothing is what it seems.' And so it is with Britannia, a nine-part series that appears to be an incomprehensible mess at first, but turns into a reasonably compelling mythical tale liberally laced with violence, humour and otherworldliness.

It is in the strange rites and rituals to be found in the edgelands of rural Britain that Jez Butterworth, one of the three-man writing team behind Britannia, specialises. There is nobody better at capturing the sacred and profane nature of our age-old cults and cultures. Anyone who has seen his play The Ferryman currently running in the West End, or before it Jerusalem with Mark Rylance as Jonny 'Rooster' Byron, will know that.

Image copyright Sky Atlantic
Image caption Mackenzie Crook, almost unrecognisable, as the chief Druid, Veran, who speaks for the gods

Mackenzie Crook was in Jerusalem with Rylance, playing a local lad under Byron's charismatic spell. In Britannia, Crook has been upgraded to the main man - a wizardy sort called Veran who has terrible skin and a wicked stare. He is the leader of the Druids, and as such, has a direct line to the gods, who are unseen but ultimately control everything. A bit like bankers, I suppose.

It is to the gods everyone must answer, even the cold and calculating Aulus, whose Machiavellian tactics are to divide and rule. It is a job made much easier for him by the leaders of the two tribes who are constantly, and literally, at each other's throats.

Image copyright Sky Atlantic
Image caption Zoë Wanamaker as Antedia, the fierce Queen of the Regni

The foul-mouthed Queen Antedia (Zoë Wanamaker in a role too trivial for such a talented actor) of the Regni wants vengeance for her son's private parts, which were whipped off the unsuspecting dope by the Cantii's flame-haired maverick, Kerra (Kelly Reilly). She couldn't care less, as long as she can wear green and continue to flirt with her hunky Gaul friend (Stanley Weber).

Image copyright Sky Atlantic
Image caption Kerra (Kelly Reilly), the headstrong warrior and daughter of King Pellenor

The acting, directing, scripting are all fine, sometimes they are very good, but the show has yet to really take off, although the potential is there.

Obviously the whole thing is silly.

It is not a history programme, it's a fantasy drama with all the swords, sorcery and stone circles you could hope for.

If you like that sort of thing you'll probably like Britannia, if you don't you won't.

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