REVIEW: Sky Atlantic’s Britannia, Season 1

Britannia Big

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first season of Sky Atlantic’s Britannia.

“In 55BC, Julius Caesar invaded Britannia seeking to exploit the island’s legendary tin deposits. He came face to face with another legend … the druids. He went straight home. Nine decades later, the Romans are back … ”

Britannia 3 worldsSo begins Sky Atlantic’s epic historical and fantasy drama, Britannia, and like the Romans, we are plunged into a wild world of ancient magic, bloody feuds, intricate rituals, and unspeakable horrors. The series was created by Jez Butterworth (The Ferryman, Jerusalem) and is loosely based on history because Butterworth was more concerned with telling an interesting story. He told The Guardian that his goal was to

“try to create something tricksterish and unreliable that doesn’t wear its research on its sleeve and is more interested in character than in definable historical events.”

Britannia is an ambitious effort, complete with lush, gorgeous locations, elaborate costumes and make-up, and an all-star cast including Kelly Reilly, Zoe Wanamaker, David Morrissey, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Eleanor Worthington Cox, and many more. Comparisons with Game of Thrones are inevitable, but I advise against it because Britannia is very much its own weird and wonderful animal. I’d say the show is closer to Vikings with the level of violence, the slight historical basis, and the occasional supernatural elements. But again, it would be best to watch and appreciate Britannia on its own.

The story is set in 43 AD and the Romans have returned to the cursed land of Britannia led by Aulus Platius, who is determined to succeed where Julius Caesar has failed. He arrives in a land full of chaos whether it’s from the warring tribes or from the mysterious forces of the old gods who speak their will through the druids. The story can be easily divided into three segments though they often intersect in various ways and are full of compelling, complex characters.

The Tribes

Britannia KerraThere’s enough civil war and political intrigue on the island with the two rival tribes, the Cantii and the Regni, who have a longstanding feud, a conflict that Aulus Plautius uses to his advantage.

The Cantii are led by the stern King Pellenor (Ian McDiarmid), who always bows to the will of the gods and the druids. His children are Prince Phelan (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and the tempestuous Kerra (Kelly Reilly).

Kerra is the main character of Britannia, a Celtic warrior princess who is fierce, loyal, intelligent, beautiful, and compassionate. As the series progresses, she proves to be a fine leader for her people and she takes it upon herself to negotiate with the Roman invaders. She and Aulus have some very intriguing conversations (and it’s clear they have chemistry) but her first priority are her people and she is willing to sacrifice much for their survival.

Britannia AntediaThe Regni are led by the equally capable and cunning Queen Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker) who hates Kerra for very personal reasons. Another ruthless tribal leader, it’s Antedia who makes a deal with the Romans in return for the defeat of the Cantii but she ends up getting more than she bargained for.

One great thing about Britannia is having two female characters as the leaders of their nations and exhibiting the same strength and intelligence as any male counterpart. Both tribes also have women warriors and are not bogged down by the usual patriarchal standards.

The Romans

Britannia AulusAulus Platius (David Morrissey) is the charismatic general of the legion who proves to be more than just the stereotypical military leader. He is ruthless and aggressive but also pragmatic and sly. While he has the manpower and the weaponry for a full-scale war, he prefers to conserve his resources and to play the natives against each other. He is shrewd enough to see that he can easily manipulate the situation by simply waiting for them to destroy each other and thus getting rid of the obstacles to Roman conquest.

He is also fascinated by the druids and the ancient religion and tries to learn about the culture of the land. There are hints during the series that he is more than what he seems, and he even manages to visit the underworld.

Britannia gets some credit for diversity since the Roman army is shown to be composed of some people of color, and some of these soldiers play fairly prominent roles in the story. Sadly, there are no major characters of color on the show yet, but it’s refreshing to see a diverse conquering army and to hear stories about where these soldiers came from, as proof of the growing scope of the Roman Empire.

There was a particularly weird bottle episode that featured two soldiers, high on some local drug, having a trippy discussion about the nature of religion. That was fun.

The Druids

Britannia VeranThe most mysterious group of the series, the druids bring the element of the supernatural to Britannia. Led by Veran (Mackenzie Crook), the druids communicate the will of the gods to the people on the island. They live in an isolated community and dress differently from everyone else and are feared by the common man. All druids seem to possess fantastical powers that allow them to control things around them, deliver prophecies, and even cross over to the underworld.

The major thread that ties the druids to both the tribes and the Romans is the journey of Cait, whose true nature may be far greater than she realizes. Cait is supposed to undergo an initiation ceremony that will transition her from child to woman when the Romans attack and her sister is killed. She is separated from her father for a while and rescued by a wandering druid named Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who is also known as the Outcast. Though young and innocent, Cait is loyal and brave, and also another fascinating female character on the show.

Britannia odd coupleFor a while, these two form an odd couple (akin to Arya and the Hound) and they are the source of the comic relief of Britannia. Divis, in particular, is a kooky character, banished by the druids for some reason, but still somehow communicating with the ancient spirits and demons. Lie Kaas delivers a delightful performance, clearly enjoying the madness of his role (as opposed to his serious roles in the Department Q films), as he mutters gibberish, hypnotizes soldiers, and dives into the deep in order to visit the underworld.

Divis later realizes that Cait is the girl in a prophetic vision about a leader who will defeat the Romans and somehow Aulus Platius sees the vision as well. The girl is unaware of her destiny and the series ends without giving us any answers about her role in the big picture. Those answers have been saved for the second season of the show.

Britannia druidsHurdy Gurdy Man

“Histories of ages past

Unenlightened shadows cast

Down through all eternity

The crying of humanity”

Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man is the opening theme of Britannia and it sets just the right, funky tone for the series as a whole. The writing isn’t always perfect and the story is sometimes oddly paced. As expected, there are some unnecessary sex scenes and the political intrigue is not too sophisticated. Some characters deserve better, but that’s a problem with many shows today.

Britannia is still full of intriguing and compelling characters (many of these warrior women) and is a fun blend of history and fantasy. The season ends in uncertainty and though we know how things play out in history, this series deviates enough from it that we are not entirely sure what to expect. And that’s what makes it exciting.

Britannia is available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime.