Domina, review: sex and violence by the platterful in this cheesy Game of Romes

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·3 min read
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Tom Glynn-Carney as Gaius, the future Emperor Augustus - Stefano C Montesi
Tom Glynn-Carney as Gaius, the future Emperor Augustus - Stefano C Montesi

Game of Thrones met Life of Brian in Sky Atlantic’s new historical blockbuster Domina. There was also a smattering of anachronistic girl power as the first of eight episodes introduced plucky heroine Livia Drusilla (Nadia Parkes). Kicking off with a vignette in which she smashed an assailant’s head in with a rock, it was established that Livia was no maiden in distress but a woman in control of her own destiny.

The real Livia was – pauses to look up Wikipedia – third wife of Emperor Augustus, mother of Emperor Tiberius and grandmother of Caligula. But Domina re-purposed her as the original plucky girl-warrior: think Arya Stark from Game of Thrones crossed with Daisy Ridley in Star Wars.

This being ancient Rome, toga-fuelled intrigue was mandatory. And so we flashed back to Livia’s adolescence. To seal a crucial alliance, her father, Livius – Game of Thrones’s Liam Cunningham – was marrying off his 15-year-old daughter to obnoxious fuddy duddy Tiberius Nero (Enzo Cilenti)

But despite trying to get ahead of the game by trading in his only child, Livius’s power base was revealed to be built on shifting sands. His big fumble was allying with Brutus – yes, Julius Caesar’s former bestie. The tide turned against the conspirators, sweeping Livius away with it and forcing Livia and Nero into exile.

Sex and violence were served up by the platterful, which is where it all went rather Game of Romes. In proper Westeros fashion, everyone staggered around streaked in fashionable layers of grit and grime – a missed opportunity seeing as Domina was filmed on location in the hinterland of modern Rome. An occasional acknowledgment of the gorgeous scenery might not have gone amiss.

Nadia Parkes and Isabella Rossellini - Stefano C Montesi
Nadia Parkes and Isabella Rossellini - Stefano C Montesi

There were shades, too, of Monty Python circa “What did the Romans Ever Do For Us?”. We were introduced to characters such as Marcus Scribonius and Sextus Pompeius, which sounded like an anagram for something rude.

As Livia, Parkes had the aura of a star in the making. So it was a pity she was swapped out after two episodes as the story fast-forwarded to the character’s later life and the role was taken over by Kasia Smutniak.

Some of the casting choices baffled. Portraying the youthful general Gaius Julius (the future Caesar Augustus), Tom Glynn-Carney, for instance, radiated all the Machiavellian menace of a 15-year-old My Chemical Romance fan.

As he plotted and adjusted a floppy fringe, you constantly expected someone to confiscate his Nintendo Switch and send him to his room. There was also an insultingly small part for Isabella Rossellini as a brothel madame who had acquired Livia’s best-pal, Antigone (Melodie Wakivuamina) in a fire-sale after Livius’s downfall.

Parkes’s forceful presence just about got the first two instalments over the line. Yet for all the gore and the romping, this was still a cheesy swords-and-sandals caper – more Wake Me Up Before You Toga than Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. It was fun but it felt a minor miracle that everyone involved managed to keep a straight face.