Troy: Fall of a City is a brooding but bloodless BBC epic

Friday, 16th February 2018, 13:31 pm
Updated Friday, 16th February 2018, 13:55 pm

Hot on the heels of Sky's own fantasy/history mash-up Britannia, which managed to turn the Roman conquest of Britain into a barmy psychedelic adventure, the BBC have drawn on Homer's Iliad and the world of Greek myth for their own attempt at Game of Thrones style spectacle, starting this weekend.

The good news is that Troy: Fall of a City depicts the legendary conflict between the Trojans and the Greeks with the kind of lavish, impressive production values you'd want in such an epic undertaking. And with a far more atmospheric and considered approach than 2004's overblown and cheesy (if guiltily enjoyable) big screen movie starring Brad Pitt.

The bad news is that first episode 'Black Blood' gets things off to a brooding but - ironically enough - largely bloodless start.

It's enough to make you long for Brian Cox bellowing on the back of a chariot. Or Pitt leaping through the air in a ridiculous blonde wig.

Those Greeks may bear the real gifts

A spot of stormy childbirth, a woodland encounter with a bevy of deities, and an early if brief fulfillment of the obligatory 'sex and nudity' quota help the opening minutes grab the attention.

But the initial episode is not concerned with throwing lashings of naked flesh and violence our way.

That, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. And neither is its steady sense of pacing. After all, Fall of a City has eight hour-long episodes in which to spin its story.

The bigger issue is its struggle to really invest the viewer in its characters, despite pushing dialogue scenes to the fore. Many of the exchanges are as shallow and expository as they are straight-faced.

The decision has been made to show things largely from the Trojan perspective, but the Greeks are potentially a hell of a lot more fun.

An almost unrecognisable Jonas Armstrong, bushy of beard and burly of presence, makes an instant impression as Spartan King Menelaus. He has enjoyable charisma, swagger and edge.

Johnny Harris as Agamemnon will surely be one to watch. But to begin with all we have to make do with is a mere glimpse of him, bethroned and clad in shadow.

Likewise, Greek killing machine Achilles is yet to be seen in action, while on the Trojan side, 'noble' Hector - who doesn't really seem so noble on first impressions - is also mostly in the background for now.

When a cocky hero meets an ancient feminist...

One of the more interesting aspects is Trojan protagonist Paris, and the way he is framed - even if he does initially struggle to stand out from all the many similarly attired men with long-ish hair and beards.

Portrayed by Louis Hunter as a rugged, hardy and distinctly buff figure (who would eat Orlando Bloom's wet drip of a prince for breakfast), here Paris is something of a reckless social climber, new to riches and excess, and armed with a cockiness that frequently flirts with danger.

"No one can master me," he growls. "Caution never got me anywhere."

Paris (right) is depicted as a rash, arrogant social climber (Photo: BBC)

Partly due to that - and partly due to a distinct lack of chemistry - it makes sense to consider his actions on a certain fateful trade mission to be motivated by ego and hubris rather than actual love.

It's an interesting angle to go with. Albeit less of a sympathetic one.

Meanwhile, Bella Dayne as Helen has a wry cynicism and wisdom that aims to give her character more of a feminist slant ("surprised that I have a mind of my own?"), and seeks to lend her agency rather than her just being a prize to squabble over.

The jury's currently out over whether it's a successful attempt.

Costume drama with a cinematic sheen

Fall of a City's strength lies in its staging, and the mood this creates.

The set design, cinematography and costumes frequently scream old-school Hollywood epic in terms of quality, though the colour scheme is muted to add to the intentionally grittier feel.

Also worth highlighting is the strong musical score, which musters the expected ethereal ambience, but also has a surprising electronic foundation at times too: providing flashes of throbbing bass and popping synth amid the Celtic-style pipes and strings.

Helen is not just a damsel in distress. But how progressive will her character truly prove to be? (Photo: BBC)

Over the opening hour, however, initially interesting locations and sequences are ultimately replaced by an awful lot of slightly ponderous exchanges in shadowy torch-lit chambers and corridors.

In fairness, the meat of the story and its spectacle still lies ahead. There will doubtless be more scenes with the Gods, the introduction of infamous and legendary nemesi (bring on Odysseus!), and the BBC has promised us some "full on" battle scenes. The trailer alone suggests the action could be spectacular.

To begin with though, Fall of a City feels like a serviceable costume drama with pretensions of Shakespearean grandeur, wrapped in exquisite presentation.

It is (whisper it) ever-so-slightly boring.

Troy: Fall of a City is on Saturdays at 9.10pm on BBC One

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