Empire (2005)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Vincent Regan, Santiago Cabrera, Jonathan Cake, Michael Byrne
Extras: Featurettes, Effects Reel

Television movies and mini-series sure have come a long way in the past 10 years or so. From cheaply slapped together films without any real production values, the genre has reached a point now where some of these productions easily rival feature film productions. Case in point, Buena Vista Home Entertainment's epic mini-series "Empire." Shot entirely on location in Italy this film gives Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" a run for its money on more than a few occasions. Sure, the scope of the film is much more intimate and lacks the massive crowd scenes of "Gladiator" but during these more intimate moments, "Empire" manages to pull off the same level of production detail and credibility.

In 44 B.C. Julius Caesar plans to reform Rome and give the wealth of the republic back to the people, where it belonged, instead of the rich who just kept getting fatter. In response the Senate concocted a plan to kill Caesar and during the Ides of March in 44 B.C. Caesar was stabbed to death by Roman senators inside the senate to bring to an end the threat he posed to them. With his last breath Caesar confides in Tyrannus, a former gladiator he had hired as a bodyguard, that he wishes his grand nephew Gaius Octavius to be his successor. Tyrannus swears an oath to protect Octavius and make sure he would complete Caesar's plan to break the stranglehold of corruption that had Rome in its grip.

The senators immediately set about to find and root out every Caesar loyalist they can find, to portray Caesar as a tyrant, to disguise their hideous act. The events threw Rome into Civil War and 17-year old Octavius suddenly finds himself on the run from the assassin the senate has hired so that they can maintain control. With only Tyrannus by his side, the young man, unable to believe that he should be indeed be Caesar, plunges into a nightmare that could end his life at every corner.

In six episodes the mini-series details Octavius' tribulations from the young man who held no political power to becoming one of history's most important rulers – Augustus Caesar.

Told mostly from the perspective of Tyrannus, "Empire" is a fascinating, thrilling and educational film. One of the things that struck me immediately when watching the first 40-minute episode of the mini-series was the authenticity it displayed. Caesar's assassination and the events that lead up to it are presented exactly the way they are relayed to us by historical accounts. From the bad omens and dismissed warnings, to Tillius Cimber's distracting Caesar and Casca taking the first stab, all the way to Caesar's collapse at the foot of Pompey's statue, the film takes its historical roots very seriously. There are, of course, some artistic liberties the filmmakers had to take in order to tell a compelling story, but overall the film is very nicely researched. After all, this is not meant to be a history lesson, but a compelling and dramatic movie.

The acting of the film is also marvelous. Drawing on an unknown cast, the characters are nonetheless full of live and depth, with emotions, problems, fears and pain. Especially Vincent Regan, portraying Marc Antony, Santiago Cabrera as Octavius and Jonathan Cake as Tyrannus are perfect examples of how well this production is carried by the cast.
As mentioned earlier the production design and values of this mini-series are also absolutely fascinating and you will never have the impression that the film is limited in any way. Wonderful, lush landscapes, great backdrops, marvelous costumes and a richness in detail make out this film. It all would fall to pieces, though, without a director putting it all together, and it is here where I feel the film succeeds most. Directed by John Gray, Kim Manners and Greg Yaitanes the production makes great use of visual and narrative devices to tell the story. The plot is suspenseful at all times and once you start viewing it, you simply cannot stop.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment presents "Empire" in a glorious transfer in its original 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, enhanced for 16×9 TV sets. The image is absolutely clean and free of blemishes and without grain or noise. By spreading the 240-minute production on two discs Buena Vista Home Entertainment was also able to accommodate a high bitrate for the video transfer, resulting in an image that is superbly rich and reproduces even the finest details in the transfer. Colors are strong and faithful while solid black level firmly root the image and render deep shadows that never lose definition. No edge-enhancement mars the transfer, making for a thoroughly enjoyable viewing.

The audio on the release is presented in 5.1 channel Dolby Digital, making for an engaging presentation throughout. Powerful sound effects, balanced dialogues that are never drowned out and a score that boasts a wide mix are the trademark of this presentation.

As extras, Buena Vista Home Entertainment has also included a making of featurette of the mini-series called "Rebuilding An Empire" as well as a reel giving you a glimpse at how the principal photography of the film has been enhanced digitally to create ancient Rome. It is very well done as you can see how different elements are inserted in a shot, one at a time until it is complete.

Instead of creating a drab movie about the full political machinations that went on during the events depicted in the film, "Empire" decided to take an approach that is more suited for entertaining cinema. It may not be entirely representative for what really happened and it may not fully relay the importance and difficulties of certain events and decisions but it certainly makes for a superb adventure firmly based in history. The History Channel is your go-to point for absolute accuracy, not a general audience TV mini-series.

Being a Latin-scholar who is fairly well versed in Roman history, I found "Empire" to be a great trip back in time. This film is not boring politics, nitpicking intrigues or a philosopher's flowery account. This is a story of adventure and coming of age, masterfully put together and presented.