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I'm not going to try and compete with Marcin Kukuczka's excellent (and
detailed) review, save to say this: "Poison is Queen" is arguably the
best episode in one of the best drama series ever made; and it contains
without doubt the best single scene I've ever witnessed on TV.
Brian Blessed is better known these days for his loud voice, attempts on Everest, and general good-natured bombast; so it's easy to forget that he was also a _hell_ of an actor.
The scene that Marcin mentions (the death of Augustus) takes just under four minutes, and for 2 minutes and 15 seconds of that the camera is focused completely on Blessed's face. He can't move, he can't speak, he can't blink, and yet about 40 seconds from the end, you do indeed see "the light go out of his eyes" as we hear Livia in the background justifying her actions as a Claudian and being 'for the good of Rome'.
It's an absolute tour-de-force; and anyone who thinks that acting is simple should watch it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"I'm going to keep the camera on your face. I want to see the light
going out of your eyes. We're going to see the empire die in your face"
(Herbert Wise to Brian Blessed).
After the infuriating scheme against Postumus in the previous episode and his exile to Planasia, Augustus' eyes are soon to be deprived of a veil of illusion. The victorious and hopeful return of Germanicus would foretell quite promising events to come. However, nothing can be too positive in the reality... Since each episode is primarily affected by flashback, the opening sequence of old Claudius who finds the true will of Augustus sets the right focus for the events that will make him shout in the end "Poison is Queen." It is this 'fool' Claudius who tells the truth about the 'sour apples' among the Claudian family to his brother. Augustus is bitterly disillusioned. But, a certain person who rules him finds a method of keeping the truth secret and reigning by decree of lie superior.
Yes, Augustus finally opens his eyes in order to close them for good. It is too late to restore the right plans for the empire and he is too senile and weak to escape sly poisoning. This episode, within brilliantly framed content, is the most memorable of all I CLAUDIUS episodes. Why? For the first time, we truly get the clarity of characters that appear to resemble an even operatic concept of goodness vs. wickedness. They are either black or white at the ultimate level. That approach is evoked in Augustus vs. Livia; in Flavius Maximus vs. Sejanus; in Postumus vs. Tiberius (though the latter one does not necessarily appear to be that wicked...not yet). Meanwhile, we have a wonderful reference to all times where corruption of power exterminates all traces of normality. Power is with evil this time (and no surprise) along with its determination and conceit while trustworthiness is with good (naturally) along with its verge of naiveness. It is also memorable because Augustus passes away and with him, practically, most good features to identify with are gone. His death scene is a key moment of the episode and an unforgettable depiction of human fear turning into calmness, light into darkness. The advice Herbert Wise gave Brian Blessed is beautifully executed in the performance. The camera-work also creates a tremendous effect. Here, with Augustus' death, lies part of the tragedy. Nevertheless, there is an aspect where the drama is multiplied: the emperor's last will. No one let any human hand touch the scrolls and yet, sly plans know no limits of deceit.
While the Senate sees the triumph of fight for the strength of Rome with the return of Germanicus (so that the Varus tragedy can soon be forgotten), it soon sees the triumph of lie for the decadence of Rome (so that impostors can rule by decree). This tragedy is also revealed in the episode's hidden meanings, great performances, camera movements, even the aforementioned colors of clothes. Consider Livia's mourning robe at the final moment and the ever present care for the outside, for the appearances rather than true feelings.
Thanks to some lovely dramatic moments, we meet the characters and clearly see the relations. Except for Augustus' death, a key scene, to me, is one of many garden scenes. One of the best examples where almost a Greek tragedy goes with never leaving humor. Claudius is mocked cruelly by drinking Livia and, within panic and exaggeration of his deformities (quite symbolically and prophetically) runs into Tiberius. He points memorably: "The grandson of yours could wreck the empire just by strolling through it." That is how people consumed in unrestrained pursuit of power see the reality...Another pearl is the gambling sequence at Nola. The cheerful (for the time being) Augustus seems to be in perfect mood as long as the evil omen of his wife becomes too strong. His attack reveals an almost physical realism of the scene and the image of Livia's stony face with the moon in background is a gorgeous undertone of imagery. A queen of the night. The scene with Camilla Pulchra (Carol Gillies), the chief Vestal, also underlines certain timeless features of characters whose behavior reveals their lifestyle and relations with other people. Mind you that she is a sort of character who first talks and then thinks...note the end of this scene and her face. The wicked appear to count words far more effectively... But there are also moments of relief from such a tense stuff.
Night and darkness are also the visuals of some kind moments, time to express true feelings. Germanicus and Claudius share a very nice scene in the garden. This moment reveals the tie Claudius had with his brother. David Robb in the role of Germanicus gives a natural performance of a noble character who played a decisive role in Claudius' life (there is far more about it in the novel). Another great touch is Augustus' talk with Claudius (also in the garden at night) and the emperor's quintessential words that best resemble a noble character: "You are loyal to three things: to your friends, to Rome and to the truth." So idealistic and yet so timeless. Is there room for such people in society?
The final moments echo the mockery of prophesies, arrogance, wicked laughter and the poison of a queen, a poison of lie. In an almost theatrical moment, Sian Phillips embodies a 'monster in power' whose finger manipulates what is to be considered 'true' and what to be 'false.' 'Truth' shaped by the very whim of a ruler. How universal! Has humanity learned this lesson of history? Or still poison is lie and lie is triumph?
The most memorable episode where cast and crew clearly do their best
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