I believe I have owned every home video incarnation of I, Claudius, which makes me, perhaps, Image's worst nightmare for a reviewer. Will anyone else notice that this release truncates the first two episodes, leaving out pretty sizable chunks of both, in order to get this down to a 12 episode, four disc set, rather than the previous set of two flippers with six episodes each, plus a third single-sided disc with the 13th episode and bonus documentary "The Epic That Never Was"? Now it appears that the series may indeed have aired in 12 episodes on the BBC (and I would welcome any reader feedback about this), but its previous home video releases on this side of the pond have always had 13, and I for one find this a travesty, especially as this "new, restored" version leaves out some piquant commentary by Derek Jacobi's incredible Claudius, and requires an awkward freeze frame at what used to be the beginning of the second episode. OK, so that's the bad news. The good news, the video quality of this new version is subtly, if not overwhelmingly, better than the last DVD release, and the audio also has undergone what sounds like a nice scrubbing. But was it worth losing several minutes of what is arguably the best written and acted miniseries ever to come from the BBC? I guess that ultimate decision should be left up to all of you.
Robert Graves' famous novel "I, Claudius" attempted the near-impossible, by aiming to give a first-person reminiscence of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire from its most unlikely witness and even more unlikely Emperor, Claudius, a stuttering, semi-paralyzed member of the Royal Family whom everyone assumed was retarded and therefore should be neither seen nor heard. The fact was that Claudius, at least in Graves' imagination, was the great abiding soul of Rome, a patient and wise surveyor of a scene littered with corpses and other detritus of political intrigue, a man who came to the Emperor's throne unwillingly, but who, upon ascending to it, proved to be a temporary saving grace for a degraded and defiled empire still reeling from the excesses of Caligula, among others.
What this epic miniseries does in spades is something akin to what The Sopranos did for organized crime several decades later--it made world-shaking, epochal events basically a family story, breathing incredible life and drama into an array of characters that for most of us are simply lists of names in ancient history texts. What I, Claudius the series manages to do quite handily is bring each of these characters vividly to life, easily depicting their tangled interrelationships while making the necessary historical points along the way.
I, Claudius is virtually a thesaurus of standout acting from all of the principals. Jacobi's stuttering, doddering Claudius has become the stuff of legend, but I have seen the series so many times by this point that what really impresses me the most now are Jacobi's incredible eyes, which convey so much even as his body is put through more actorly tics and spasms. This is a performance for the ages, and probably what Jacobi, despite a beyond impressive and famously long career, is going to be best remembered for. Jacobi's virtual equal is the simply superb Sian Phillips (the ex-Mrs. Peter O'Toole) as the unmitigatedly evil Livia, Claudius' grandmother and the Lucretia Borgia of her day, a woman who poisons people right and left to arrange the family dynasty the way she sees fit. Phillips' performance is one of theatrical histrionics, obviously part of Livia's grand operatic character, mixed with a truly scary menace that's saved for "private" moments with just the camera in attendance. You simply won't be able to forget this performance once you've seen it.
The rest of the supporting cast are similarly excellent, with a host of fine British actors who went on post-Claudius to achieve a greater worldwide fame. Brian Blessed is a halting but well-meaning Augustus, Livia's husband; Patrick Stewart is a stalwart Sejanus, leader of the Praetorian Guard; and, most impressively, John Hurt is Caligula, the mad hedonist who assumed the reigns of Roman power just when the Empire was already teetering on the edge of collapse. These are simply the three best known names in what is a stellar array of fine supporting work in a cast that's unusually large, but which is handled so well from a writing standpoint that each character is brilliantly explored and explicated.
Though this is a studio-bound production, there's a nice palpable feel for what Rome from the immediate post-Julius Caesar era up through Claudius' reign must have been like. Royal Roman dinner parties, with African slave drumming, as well as more proletariat pursuits like gardening, are depicted, at least in passing, giving an overall "real" feel to this piece that is quite remarkable. The whole tangle of socio-political intrigue is brilliantly handled in Jack Pulman's brilliantly erudite, yet always accessible, teleplay. Whether dealing with Claudius' late-in-life at times vindictive reminiscences, or Livia's nonstop scheming, or Tiberius' ineptitude at dealing both with Livia and Rome itself, Pulman always keeps the focus finely tuned, in what might otherwise become a mess of anecdotes. In fact one of the great glories of I, Claudius is how brilliantly it weaves its characters through generations, keeping through lines clear and developing character arcs with unerring panache.
I, Claudius is finally a study in transformative personal worth. Claudius the character (and probably the real life version) survived in large part because he was so easily disparaged due to his handicaps and speech impediments. Not even someone as evil incarnate as Livia could have ever expected him to rise to a position of authority, so of course no one ever thought to assassinate him (at least until he did indeed achieve power). But all along Claudius is taking everything in, watching and learning, and slowly coming to realize that despite his physical shortcomings, he's probably the most normal person in the royal family, and ultimately the one best suited to do some real good for Rome. While everyone around him berates him, Claudius finally finds his inner strength and perseveres, of course triumphing over all of those who either made fun of him or actually died as a result of their own preening ambitions.
This is one of the most perfect miniseries to ever air on American or British television. I'm frankly aghast that it's coming out now in this edited form, however slight those edits may be. I, Claudius is one piece of art from which not one iota should ever be cut. Every second of this masterpiece deserves to be seen and relished. Image has done its prospective buyers a disservice by offering this version, despite its nominally better picture and sound, and that's a real shame.
I, Claudius features its original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and does indeed look better than in its previous releases on this latest DVD set. You'll notice it immediately in the cleaned up title sequence, which no longer exhibits the scratches and washed out color that hampered previous home video releases. Once the series moves on to its videotaped episodes, the differences are a bit more subtle, but noticable. Colors are generally good, if not overly saturated, with acceptable detail for a television production. Contrast is equally good, with solid black levels.
There's never been a real issue with the DD 2.0 mono sound on any of the previous releases of I, Claudius, but, again, there's a subtle improvement in this release, which seems to have more dynamic range than especially the last DVD release. You can notice this in the abrupt changes between Claudius' introspective narrated soliloquoys and his actual spoken dialogue, for example. There's no noticable hiss or compression issues to speak of in any of the episodes.
As with the last DVD release, the most excellent documentary on Alexander Korda's aborted 1937 film version of I, Claudius, starring Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon, "The Epic That Never Was," is included. This features not only a wealth of existing material from the film itself, but cogent commentary from those involved in the production. It's a fascinating and uniquely well made piece, and will be of interest to film lovers even if they're not especially fond of I, Claudius. It becomes even more fascinating in the context of the newest version of I, Claudius, which is currently in pre-production and should appear in the next couple of years.
Aaaaarrrgh. That's technical critic-speak for "how dare they?" The pit in my stomach grew from the moment I noticed 12 instead of 13 episodes, and then going back and forth between my previous DVD version and this one, I couldn't believe that material was edited, even if (as I suspect) it may have aired this way on BBC at one point. If you've never seen I, Claudius, I guess the best I can say is you obviously won't know what you're missing in this new version, and it does sport a slightly improved picture and sound. For those who know this piece as intimately as I do, I frankly think you're better off with the previous, unedited version. This would normally be a DVD Talk Collector Series Title, but in this form the best I can do is Rent It.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet