USA Networks’ epic two-part miniseries “Attila” is sure to play well to the cable net’s action-oriented audiences, and may tap into the sword-and-sandals success of Golden Globe winner “Gladiator.” Like the Russell Crowe headliner, “Attila” hopes to appeal to both male and female viewers by playing the adventure and romance cards equally. Although basically factual, the mini offers a mixed bag of lush visuals and hokey melodrama, frequently undermining the fascinating story of two ambitious men from different cultures — Attila and Roman general Flavius Aetius — both on a parallel course driven by their lust for power.
As leader of the savage Huns, Attila (Gerard Butler) has united tribes in an effort to rival Rome’s domination. Meanwhile, General Aetius (Powers Boothe), is so power-mad that he’s been jailed for plotting to overthrow the Empress Placidia (Alice Krige). He’s pardoned for the express purpose of dealing with the Huns and maintaining Rome’s political and geographic hegemony.
In order to put Attila off the scent of Rome, Aetius, who recognizes the extent of Attila’s leadership skills, tries to forge an alliance with the Huns against a third warring faction. Although their relationship is based on mutual respect and admiration, ambitions betray the coalition before it ever really takes hold.Writer Robert Cochran does an excellent job of juxtaposing the two men; particularly the perceived civility of Rome and the savagery of the Huns, highlighting the fact that the cultures, in fact, had equally brutal politics.
While subplots, including Attila’s doomed relationship with a slave girl and Aetius’ love and protection for his adopted daughter, help flesh out the story, they tend to draw “Attila” more deeply into a melodrama more akin to romance novels than to historical miniseries.
Still, director Dick Lowry and director of photography Steven Fierberg provide gorgeous vistas and brutal battles in impressive detail. In fact, the film would serve as an entertaining educational tool if it weren’t for excessive blood and a generous amount of exposed skin.
Butler’s Attila is physically imposing and darkly handsome, even though historical accounts describe the warrior as squat and ugly. His is a brutal but fair rule, which makes for better romance and drama. As Aetius, Boothe, a skilled actor, often comes off as stony and stiff, like an out-of-place cowboy dressed in a toga. His rigid
performance is contrasted by a buffoonish Reg Rogers as the ineffectual Emperor Valentinian, and a gleefully wicked Tim Curry as Theodosius, leader of the farther Asian reaches of the Roman Empire.
Krige makes the most of the thankless role of Placidia, the protective mother of the Emperor. Simmone Jade MacKinnon uses her “Baywatch Down Under” experience to exude as much sexiness as possible in her dual rule as Attila’s love interests N’Kara and Ilidico.
Costumes by Abi Harris & Ros Hubbard look authentic enough, but too often the primary female characters, dressed for titillation, wind up closer to parody. Roy Forge Smith’s elaborate production design provides a nice replica of Rome and beyond, and other technical credits also reflect this meticulous attention to detail.