This made-for-television production of Nero is certainly one of the most dour affairs I've come across in the genre. There's death and deceit at nearly every turn with nary a hint of the imperial grandeur and subtle humor that marked much of its sister production Augustus with Peter O'Toole and Charlotte Rampling. In my Amazon review of the latter, I wrote: "I come to any filmed historical drama with a sense that the actual history will always be "bent" to fit the narrative point-of-view, so any omissions or embellishments of fact and character don't bother me unless they are egregious enough to ruin the entire enterprise". I also wrote that Augustus was "worthy of comparison to [the BBC production of] I, Claudius, but certainly not its equal". Nero attempts no such high pretensions. Instead, we get a flagrantly revisionist story of ill-fated romance and heavy-handed intrigues with spatterings of historical references and ultimately a denouement of Christian apologia that seems an afterthought rather than part of the fabric of the scenario. We're actually asked to feel sorry for and even "forgive" one whose reputation is that of being among history's most contemptible tyrants. I suppose it's an interesting twist on conventional notions of who Nero actually was, if only we could be made to believe half of what's put forth here!
In this teleplay, Nero's (Hans Matheson) love interest from his youth, a lovely and angelic slave by the name of Acte (Rike Schmid), eventually identifies and becomes enmeshed with the Roman Christians who include Paul of Tarsus. The irony is thick, but contemporary history is not entirely clear on Nero's relationship with the early Christians in Rome. The depiction of how Acte and Nero first come to know each other is best left for reconciliation with the film's writers since it defies written history. The child Nero's father is shown to be assassinated by order of the mad emperor Caligula while his mother Agrippina the Younger is seized and exiled. While Agrippina's exile is believed to be true, the favorable characterization of the father and the depiction of his demise is pure fabrication. Nero is spared and shown as being made a ward of Caligula's court, but also made to live among Acte's slave family and reaching young manhood among them. While the young adult Acte has a very compelling presence and is an actual figure in history (she's found in the writings of Tacitus), she unfortunately is made a prominent female in this slice of made-up history that also includes the more notorious likes of Nero's conniving mother (returned from exile by emperor Claudius) and his second wife, the sultry and seductive Poppaea. Being a slave, Acte is only allowed to be a concubine of the patrician Nero; though this, too, is eventually worked around by the scenarists. Methinks this mostly anecdotal dewy-eyed romance was chosen as the driving force and connecting thread of the narrative for the same reason James Cameron made a similar decision for his film Titantic; i.e., a nod to all class-conscious teenage romantics in the audience!
The tragic romantic ending is also pure fabrication. A previous reviewer suggests that we're made to believe Nero wasn't the innate tyrant history makes him out to be, but instead suffered from nothing more nefarious than a broken heart. It's a speculative way to help explain motivations behind certain of his more disreputable actions, but the lack of gravitas in the drama and lead performances precludes any sense of historical efficacy, something for which Roman history buffs watch these films! What's perhaps also disturbing to history buffs is that no attempts are made to bring events and characters into chronological focus. Historical timelines are purposely compressed; hence, on a subliminal level, events don't quite logically add up. I'm sure running time and budgetary constraints had as much to do with this as anything else.
Among those events inexorably tied to Nero's legacy, the persecution of the Christians is depicted in one brief harrowing scene. The cause of the persecution is not what you may surmise, however! The famous burning of Rome and Nero's detached panoramic view of it are well-staged. The cause and effect of the fire are also handled more sensibly than is usual in movies. However, there are no battle scenes (Nero's reign was relatively peaceful on the frontier. Civil war commenced only upon his death with no viable heir to the throne) and the one gladiatorial scene in the arena is actually quite tame. (The DVD cover art shows a lion in the arena, but neither animals nor Christians are harmed, or even shown, in the making of this arena scene!)
From a technical standpoint, most of the shots and scenes are well-staged with a fine sense of composition, blocking, lighting, and costuming. The same was true of Augustus, in which it seemed many of the same sets were used. However, pursuant to my opening comment of this being a dour affair, many of the interiors during the second half of Nero are purposely underlit, supposedly to convey the dark changes and tortured meanderings within Nero's mind and soul. This is severely overdone, almost to the point of exhaustion as the scenes lengthen, the pace slackens, and our interest wanes. A more accomplished lead actor and director might have been able to pull this off more effectively.
Overall, Nero allows its protagonist to be a sober, sensitive, and troubled young individual as opposed to the entertainingly hambone performances put forth by the likes of Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis? and Charles Laughton in The Sign of the Cross. Unfortunately, a "straight" Nero is also a dull Nero. Also for those who enjoyed Quo Vadis?, a notable absence from Nero's court is that of the poet Petronius. Instead, the noted stoic philosopher Seneca is used prominantly as Nero's more learned foil. The early Christian angle is much better handled in the dramatically superior television mini-series A.D.
In Nero, I believe the producers wished to present something historically-based, speculative, and sympathetic to its subject; but unlike with Augustus, ultimately comes up short on the viability and entertainment fronts. Hence, Nero is a two-star guilty pleasure with a gesture to the commandments: "Thou shalt not bore" and "Thou shalt not infuse ancient history with excess sap".