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David Morrissey

“BRITANNIA” My rating: B  (Amazon Prime)

“Britannia” is like a Limey version of “Drunk History,” only instead of whiskey shots the storytellers are doing acid tabs.

Were you to turn off the sound and just go with the visuals, this series from creators Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson would look like a pretty straightforward drama about the Roman conquest of Britain a generation after Julius Caesar.

You’ve got an occupying army of legionaries, painted and plaited Celts who resent the invasion,  mud-daubed Druid mystics overflowing with visions.

Episode to episode you can watch a Roman city being built, from a ditched military encampment to a walled fortress.

There’s plenty of violence, and some of the most realistic viscera seen outside a surgical training film.

Tons of drop-dead gorgeous scenery.

It’s when you turn on the sound that you realize what a wonderfully bizarre reality “Britannia” has created.

People here — whether natives or Romans — speak in contemporary colloquial English (“Bummer,” observes a Roman soldier).  They say “fuck” so often you look for the names of Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet in the credits.

Moreover, the entire enterprise is a sardonic black comedy, peppered with slapstick moments.

And the music choices are marvelously incongruous yet somehow absolutely spot on: Donovan, Fairport Convention, Cream, Richard Thompson.

Comparisons to “Game of Thrones” are unavoidable.  Like that HBO monster, “Britannia” features a couple dozen major characters, all of whom have their own stories that periodically intersect and/or collide.

Mackenzie Crook

To the extent that the series has a central character, it is David Morresssey’s Roman commander, Aulus, who’s only been in Britain a few hours before he’s fallen under the place’s spell and started to go native.

Not that he lets anyone know of his ever-growing obsession with Druid culture.  To the world he’s just a cynical soldier/administrator doing the Emperor’s bidding.  But as the series progresses it’s obvious that Aulus has his own bonkers agenda.

Whatever.  He’s a master manipulator who excels at playing the warring British clans off one another. You know…divide and conquer.

One faction is led by the aged King Pellinor (Ian McDiarmid…that’s right, “Star Wars’” EMPEROR PALPATINE!!!!), who has an ineffectual son (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and one kick-ass warrior-woman daughter (“Yellowstone’s” Kelly Reilly, who looks awesome with face paint and bow and arrow).

The other tribe is presided over by the white-maned matriarch Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker), who never lets go of a grudge and tells the Roman leader to “lick my crack.” Very ladylike.

Kelly Reilly

Mackenzie Crook (you may know him from the series “The Detectorists” or his recurring role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) is flat out brilliant as Veran, the skeletal chief Druid and the power behind all of Britain’s thrones. He presides over drum-fueled orgies that looks like Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon in the late ’60s. 

Even under normal circumstances Crook is an odd-looking dude, but the show’s makeup artists have done a mind-boggling job to transform him into a tattooed, black-eyed wraith.

And if that wasn’t enough, in the show’s second season Crook also plays Veran’s brother, resurrected after a millennia in limbo and bent on overthrowing his sibling’s rule.

So one of the problems here is that virtually every character is a deceitful, scheming, two-faced, murderous snake.  Hard to know who to root for.

Thankfully there’s teenage Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), whose coming out party was ruined by the Roman landing.  Cait is about the only psychologically healthy person in sight.  Except that she’s been more or less adopted by Divis, a  Druid dropout who believes she will be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. 

Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Divis is played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who looks and acts like a hirsute Jason Bateman, right down to the sardonic asides. He’s like an inept Yoda who’s always cursing in exasperation. 

If “Britannia” has a major flaw it’s that the show has no sense of urgency.  The emphasis is not so much on storytelling as on creating comic character moments — like those delivered by a couple of Roman soldiers who go AWOL and spend their days stoned on the local pharmacopeia.

And just when you figure things can’t get weirder, Season Two opens with a flashback informing us that Aulus and his second-in-command (Hugo Speer) a decade earlier presided over Jesus’ crucifixion.

It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out over the next season (which reportedly begins later this month).

| Robert W. Butler

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