The story begins in 24 B.C. during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Rome's first emperor, and ends in A.D. 54 with Nero on the throne. In between, I, Claudius details the scheming, murder, madness, and lust that passed for politics in the early years of the Pax Romana. The biggest worm in the Roman apple is Augustus's wife, Livia (the superb Siân Phillips), whose single-minded pursuit of power shapes the destiny of the Empire. With a carefully planted rumor here and a poisoned fig there, she gradually maneuvers her son, Tiberius, toward the throne, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and treachery that starts Rome on its helter-skelter slide into bloody chaos. Phillips somehow makes us understand this extraordinarily wicked woman. As she ages and her carefully wrought webs begin to unravel, it becomes clear that Livia has been as thoroughly poisoned by her own ambition as her victims were by her carefully prepared meals.
Further acting honors go to George Baker as Tiberius, who resists but eventually succumbs to the destiny forced upon him by his mother, and to John Hurt as a hilarious and absolutely terrifying Caligula. In one breathtakingly tense scene, the mad Emperor performs a dance in drag, then asks Claudius to critique it, perfectly capturing the horror of a world where one wrong word means death, or worse. Jacobi is the perfect Claudius, hiding his intelligence behind a crippling stammer and shuffling around the edges of events--until he finds himself pulled to the very center. His wry comments give shape to the tangled story of his family and help the audience make sense of a dauntingly complex cast of characters.
I, Claudius might seem a little studio-bound to viewers brought up on more recent big-budget costume dramas, but the topnotch cast and the incident-filled plot are more than enough to hold the attention through almost 11 hours of gripping, deliciously wicked Roman follies. This boxed set also includes a documentary entitled "The Epic That Never Was," about Alexander Korda's failed attempt to film I, Claudius in 1937. The film, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Charles Laughton as Claudius and Merle Oberon as Messalina, was abandoned unfinished, and it remains one of Hollywood's great lost movies. --Simon Leake
Clocking in at eleven hours, "I, Claudius" rips the curtain back from Imperial Rome and shows the savagery, the venality, the evil, and yes, the goodness at work in the court during the early days of Imperial Rome. Tracking a story over several decades, "I, Claudius" tells an epic story of murder, deceit, seduction, and justice that is simultaneously grand and intimate -- the story is simply too grand a scale to be made into a feature film (well, with the caveat that if Peter Jackson can film the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he can film any epic out there).
Narrated by an aged Emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi, in a career-making performance), "I, Claudius" starts with the reign of Caesar Augustus (Brian Blessed, delightfully Machiavellian) and his vicious wife, Livia (Sian Phillips, almost stealing the show). Augustus, reluctant to drive a stake through the heart of the Roman Republic, nevertheless seeks to consolidate his power; Livia is fully committed to burying the Republic forever and seating her reluctant son, Tiberius (George Baker) on the throne. Through seduction, wily craft, and generous doses of poison, Livia gets her way. Her parting scene with Augustus is a masterpiece of acting on both sides.
As an aside, the acting in "I, Claudius" more than makes up for an obviously limited budget and virtually no special effects . . . it's like watching a televised play. On-screen violence is nevertheless convincing, and the entire cast hits each precious note with skill. Watch for a young, bewigged(!) Patrick Stewart as the ambitious Sejanus, John Hurt as the deranged Caligula, and John Rhys-Davies as Marcro, Sejanus' second-in-command.
Claudius, born lame with both a twitch and a stutter ("That boy could destroy the Empire just by strolling through it!"), is nevertheless prophesied to save Rome from her bloody fate. As his older, wiser friends repeatedly tell him (usually just before their own murder), Claudius should play up his disabilities in order to stay alive. Which Claudius does, and as an amateur historian he chronicles the lives (and deaths) of so many noble Romans.
Tiberius succeeds Augustus (thanks in large part to Livia's gift with poisons), and as he falls into depths of depravity, Sejanus makes his play for the throne. Caligula inherits the throne from Tiberius, although not as smoothly as he would have liked, and he shows the truth in the absolute corruption brought about by absolute power. Claudius, staunch Republican that he is, nevertheless finds himself on the Imperial throne, a captive of the Praetorian Guard, following Caligula's untimely end. He works to restore the Republic, but such is not to be, and ultimately Nero ascends to the throne.
But on the way, Claudius spins one heck of a tale. Far from the magisterial views of Imperial Rome so often shown in films, "I, Claudius" thrusts us into the courtrooms and bedrooms of the Roman nobility, and it's a captivating, but often ugly, sight.
I simply had to add a comment about picture quality, which one review complained was not as good as a copy of the original VHS tapes. I've seen the VHS tape version. This DVD release surely is no worse. The source material was perhaps softened a bit too much to lessen video noise on the original. In other words, the focus looks a bit soft. Other than that, there is nothing wrong with the picture quality.
I've seen other video material from this era transferred to DVD, and this is about the best that can be expected. We watched the entire series on DVD with no complaints. I was very happy. You will be too, as you are drawn into this story, brought alive with consummate skill and passion.