Starring: David Morrissey, Kelly Reilly, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Mackenzie Crook, Zoë Wanamaker, Eleanor Worthington-Cox
Director: Metin Hüseyin, Sue Tully, Luke Watson, Sheree Folkson, Christoph Schrewe
Writers: Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth, James Richardson, Richard McBrien
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
Amazon is churning out original programming. Clearly in the hopes of keeping up, if not getting ahead of Netflix, Hulu, and HBO to name but a few competitors. One such recent program is Britannia, a collaboration with Sky and written by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), Tom Butterworth (Fortitude) and James Richardson (It’s All Gone Pete Tong). What results is a show that is both fresh and fun.
Britannia is a fictional take on the second invasion of Britain in 43AD after Julius Ceasar failed to do so almost a century earlier. The Romans, with years of war experience behind them, come organized and with a clear plan in mind. Oh, and they have numbers. Four legions (about 20,000 soldiers) arrive to begin their conquest. The tribes on the other hand, well, they aren’t so organized. There’s so much fighting within, and across them, it handicaps them terribly. As a result, it appears Rome is well positioned to get a stranglehold over the land, playing the tribes against one another. But not so fast as there’s one mysterious tribe, whose influence may upset everyone’s plans. That of the Druids.
Though some of the tribes are sworn mortal enemies, they all defer to the will of the Druids, because they are the ones who speak in the name of the gods. They exert incredible influence over tribes, acting as judge, jury, and executioner when asked. They arrange marriages and even naming new kings and queens. Even the Roman general decides to visit them for advice. Their influence is visible throughout the first season, but we aren’t sure what their end game is yet. Interestingly, they forbid non-druids from learning to read and write which made me think about their true nature. Are they representatives of the gods, or are they simply oppressive rulers that rely on the ignorance of the ruled? It’s difficult to tell.
Unfortunately, the writers didn’t balance out their involvement over the course of the show. They began mysterious and powerful but slowly regressed to a few pointless repetitive scenes. Should subsequent seasons be greenlit, the writers need to tighten this storyline, given the druids are such an influential group of characters.
Britannia has strong male characters. General Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey, The Walking Dead, Extant) exudes confidence and seems to be one step ahead of everyone at all times. Wearing a smile, he makes those in his presence feel a false sense of security. Underestimating him is dangerous, as seen at the end of the first season when it’s revealed how he truly intends to conduct this war. Similarly, Veran (Mackenzie Crook, Pirates of the Caribbean, Almost Human), who looks like an ancient living mummified zombie, is a foe not to be underestimated. As the head druid, he acts as the spokesperson for the gods, influencing the political landscape. Both these men are chess masters, and they are playing for the future of Britain, willing to sacrifice pieces along the way to victory.
Britannia also has strong female characters. Queen Antedia (Zoë Wanamaker, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) rules the Regni with an iron fist. She has personal reasons to want the end of the Cantii, hence her fragile alliance with the Romans. Meanwhile, Kerra (Kelly Reilly, True Detective) of the Cantii, is a strong leader as well, unexpectedly succeeding her father, Pellenor (Ian McDiarmid, Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars). Unlike everyone around her, she wants to avoid war. She cares more about the longevity of her people, which is why she offers her allegiance to the Romans.
Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a feisty young Cantii girl whose future seems to be closely linked to the success or failure of the Romans, is a fun character, albeit a little brat-like. And there’s also an intriguing character, Hella (Laura Donnelly, Outlander, Missing), a bounty hunter of sorts who’s excellent at her trade who should have had a bigger role. Unfortunately, there’s a missed opportunity with these characters.
Though Britannia doesn’t shy away from introducing strong female characters, it fails in providing them with opportunities to develop, and in sustaining that evolution. Queen Antedia establishes herself as a strong ruler, ready to use the Romans to get revenge on her enemies. However, too quickly she becomes a passive bystander. She seems happy just to have the Romans kiss her feet (ya, literally…). Meanwhile, events unfold, and by the time all hell breaks loose, she’s become a victim.
Similarly, Kerra begins as this interesting, fiery, red-headed warrior, one who is even willing to defy the druids, and by extension, the gods. Unfortunately, halfway through the show, she ends up looking like an extra. She walks through sets in her green dress, while events escalate around her. Even Cait, in whom the future of the tribes lies, never truly evolves until the last episode. All three become pawns for the chess masters. It’s a real shame. Creating strong female characters is an asset. However, having them ultimately controlled and outplayed by male characters sadly undermines this choice. An opportunity existed, but it wasn’t seized. It failed. I can only hope that if renewed, the writers will take a better approach to fleshing out these female leads.
Britannia is a drama, but there’s also humour interspersed throughout. The relationship that develops between Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Cait is funny. To see a druid, a man who’s been to the underworld, who has visions given by the gods, and who arguably plays an important role in mentoring/protecting Cait, argue with a teenager, is hilarious, especially given she constantly outsmarts him. In one episode, Brutus (Daniel Caltagirone) and Philo (Zaqi Ismail) have been living in a Cantii healer’s hut for four months, indulging in the various ‘medicinal herbs’ they found in the cellar. It’s Cheech and Chong, it’s Harold and Kumar, and it’s really funny! Gods, war, treachery, death, and… tripping? The balance is perfect, keeping the show lighter than the usual politically charged fantasy shows.
Verdict: Watch it!
Having recently acquired the rights to Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower and The Wheel of Time, Amazon clearly wants to be on board the fantasy genre train. Britannia, an original production, is part of that push and it does not disappoint. There is drama, romance, sex, war, violence, politics (and all of its accompanying elements like treason and alliances) and comedy. It craftily tells a complex story, and by the time you get to the end, you’ll only wish season two was already available.