In “Medici: Masters of Florence” the story bounces back and forth between twenty years in the lives of its main characters. Richard Madden, known mainly for his role as Robb Stark in “Game of Thrones,” plays Cosimo de Medici, the Renaissance-era banker largely responsible for the establishment of the Medici bank that heavily influenced the political platform of Florence in the 15th century. The series follows Cosimo closer than the other characters. His youthful endeavor to be an artist is quashed with ruthless and manipulative tactics hatched from the power-thirsty plot of his father, Giovanni de Medici. What’s even more fascinating is Cosimo’s flaccid response to this action, and how little he resists his forced placement at the head of the table of the de Medici family.
This show explores the family dynamic of de Medici, a dynamic controlled by Giovanni de Medici, played by Dustin Hoffman. It becomes clear in the first episode that Giovanni’s vision for the de Medici family extends to the highest reaches of Florentine society, and there is nothing he will not do to establish his family as the ruling power of Italy. He sabotages romances, career plans, and friendships of both his sons and pulls their strings like a puppet master. He decides it is Cosimo’s destiny to be at the head of the Medici bank, and everything he does is in service to that goal.
Shows and films that cover a story spanning many years are faced with a unique challenge; either they find young (or old) actors and actresses that physically resemble their top-billed stars, or they cover the lead actors in makeup and hair pieces and allow them to play their characters at another age. One technique is not better or worse than the other, but they both have their own pros and cons. The players of this show were challenged with portraying their characters at two different stages of their lives. Though the result was a little far-fetched- the difference in your looks between 20 and 40 is vast- the actors and actresses leaned into their roles and made the most out of every scene. Their emotions reflect their supposed ages, and that’s enough to gain my buy-in.
Dustin Hoffman was an interesting choice for the character of Giovanni de Medici. Not only does he look like the anti-Italian to me, but the way he speaks is jarring in this historical drama. He sounds too 20th century-United States to pull off such an antiquated characterization. I had a hard time not thinking of “Meet the Fockers” while watching this which threw me in scenes where he is directing his son’s to betray friends and discard women like dirty bathwater. He does grow on you as the series progresses. By the end of the 8-episode first season, I fully understood why they cast him, but still… I think they could have dug up someone a little more authentic Italian to play this part.
That leads me to another casting observation; Annabel Scholey as Contessina de Medici made this show what it is. I’ll admit, I was weary when she showed up red in the face pandering to have her weakling of a son inserted as Cosimo’s second in command after Giovanni’s untimely demise. Her dismay seemed manic and over the top at first glance, and that put me off the character for an episode or two. But, low and behold, that girl Scholey steals the show. Not only does Scholey harness the passion and fiery nature of an Italian matriarch, but she hastens back and forth between flashback sequences and the time the show is actually taking place with such believability it adds to the legitimacy of the other actors doing the same thing.
Stuart Martin plays Cosimo’s older brother, Lorenzo. His part is a large one. His relationship with Cosimo is a major source of tension throughout the series. Lorenzo acts on impulse and has a tendency to make rash decisions with little to no regard for consequences. Cosimo is more calculating, often times anticipating Lorenzo’s half-cocked behavior and using it to his advantage. Other than that, there is really nothing Martin’s portrayal adds to the show; his performance didn’t do a lot for me, so I think they could have added some more depth to the character other than tacking on a love interest late in the game like some weird live-action version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
The writers packed so many storylines into this series that they almost oversaturate the story with complexity. The show’s creators could have easily turned several of the major events in the first season into full seasons themselves. They did a fabulous job portraying the many moving parts of a city like Florence, I just hope they didn’t put all the interesting content in the first season. I would hate to see such an interesting story suffer at the hands of writers who reach for outlandish storylines because they’re at a loss for where to go next.
This is the second series I’ve watched recently where the actors do not attempt to speak with an accent/dialect natural to the place the story takes place. This show was filmed on location in Italy and broadcast originally on Italian television networks. The show originally aired back in 2016 and was only recently released to the American public through the streaming service, Netflix. Another example of this type of language swap is the French television series, “Versailles.” The show’s cast is filled to the brim with British actors who do not attempt to hide their sophisticated English accents despite depicting people who lived in 17th century France. Both of “Versailles” and “Medici: Masters of Florence” had huge budgets, and it is very clear they are meant to do well with English speaking audiences. I think foreign production companies are realizing just how lucrative the English television market can be and have decided to infiltrate the scene via streaming services.
Whatever their motive for filming in English, it caught me off guard. In both of the series I listed above, I went in expecting to hear some semblance of an accent from each of the actors just for the sake of historical context. So, it threw me when the verbal equivalent of Union Jack came pouring out of their mouths. I got used to it, of course, and that hitch in what I consider two great series is hardly fatal.
Medici: The Masters of Florence is beautifully cast, gorgeously landscaped, and audibly stunning. It took me an episode or two to fully commit, but once it hooked me, I couldn’t stay away. The story itself is fascinating, but the scheming and debauchery that was rampant in that day will leave you vastly entertained.
Once the actors settle into their roles- I would say about episode 3- this show really takes off. I have nothing but great things to say about the quality of the acting, and I think this show proves Richard Madden is more than just a Stark of Winterfell.
This is a great show for a binge watch since it takes a little time to become fully invested in the story. I would say when you sit down to watch it, plan to watch at least 3 of the episodes before you quit. Once you hit that point, you won’t want to stop watching.
Rating: 3 out of 4 Stars:
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