“It all begins with seeing. So what do you see?”
The term “Renaissance man” is often used to describe a person who has a very wide range of interests in which they have become quite skilled. It’s taken from the traits of the many artists, innovators, and writers of the 15th century. And while the term might well apply to any number of such historical figures, there is none for whom it is more apt than Leonardo DaVinci.
He might not have been the first to imagine human flight, but he was the first to sketch models of aircraft that actually could achieve it. He invented military weapons such as the tank, fragmentation bombs, and multi-barreled cannons. And like the scientists who developed and tested the first atomic weapons in the deserts of Nevada, he spent much of his later years frightened by the prospects of his own genius. Some considered him mad. He was quite the ladies’ man; he left us with an image of the most famous woman in history, and no one even knows her name. We merely refer to her as Mona Lisa. Rich history and character like this could not long be ignored by the powers that be in Hollywood. Enter Starz’s original series Da Vinci’s Demons.
There is a strong trend in television shows these days to depict famous historical figures in their younger days, the moments of their lives less chronicled, the days before they reached the kind of fame or notoriety that allows their names to pass through history unforgotten. It doesn’t even matter if they are real or fictional. Lately shows have delivered young, yet unknown versions of Al Capone and Henry VIII along with the likes of Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter. Da Vinci’s Demons introduces us to a young Leonardo, played by Tom Riley, who is just now coming to notice by the Medici Family, rulers of the city-state of Florence.
Riley is a rather interesting choice for the part. He certainly has an impressive range as an actor, essential to this part. He plays Da Vinci as both inspired and eternally frustrated. He finds his genius as much a curse as a blessing. It’s likely true that Da Vinci’s own frustrations grew out of others’ inability to see what was as clear as day to himself. He was a bastard son, which meant he had a social status to overcome as well. Riley’s Da Vinci is certainly on the edge of madness. He is haunted by the drug-induced dreams of a mysterious Al-Rahim, played By Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig. We now know he is very real and has entered Da Vinci’s mind to steal his designs and give them to the Turks. In season 3 his madness is brought to the brink, because he now knows what it’s like to face himself. He sees the devastation of his weapons designs from the other side. It’s a truly frightening proposition for the man.
The Turk invasion threatens all of Italy, and several attempts are being made to unite the city states to fight the threat. Of course, each faction has their own ideas about who should be in charge. Lucrezia (Haddock) is now mother to the heir of the Medici family. With the help of Nico (Vlahos), she stands up to the nobility of Florence to resist the imposter Pope’s call for a crusade to fight the Turks. It’s a wonderful chance for both her and Nico to shine as they find themselves no longer in Leonardo’s shadow. It’s a nice dynamic change for both actors and characters. There’s a little of that for Zo (Chillin). He’s often out on his own doing what he can for the crisis. He does end up in and out of the sphere of Leonardo’s influence.
The intrigue here is not only The Turks. In Rome the Pope and his nephew Riario (Ritson) are part of a secret society called The Labyrinth. Riario is an unwitting follower. The real brains is the bastard Medici Carlo (Fearon) They convert followers by use of a torture device that delivers a drug into the eyes. It’s very Clockwork Orange, and their goal is to convert Da Vinci, who is desperate enough to fight the Turk’s stolen weapons that he appeals to the Pope to finance his new designs. The intrigue becomes rather circular here as factions play their various cards to be countered by others. Da Vinci won’t be an easy person to brainwash, to be sure. He even seeks the help of Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, played quite nicely by Paul Rhys. Finally Da Vinci attempts to use lightning itself as an “ultimate” weapon against the Turks.
Da Vinci is played as more of a quirky detective than an artist. He even gets to play a detective here in a gory set of murders. It’s the Pope’s price for financing Da Vinci’s designs. He’s actually pretty frustrated with art at this point and is more obsessed with his quest. In fact, his relationship with Riario is very much like a Holmes/ Moriarty dynamic. As Da Vinci puzzles out his mysteries, we see flashes of symbols and animations meant to show us his brain functioning. Slow-motion birds in flight capture Da Vinci’s thoughts as they reveal their secrets of flight. Sketches illustrate his process as he comes to another brilliant conclusion. These things appear all around the screen as if Da Vinci himself were studying them in the air around him. At times it’s distracting, at times somewhat illuminating. While the performance is certainly strong, Riley looks and acts too much like a modern character to be believable as Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s a captivating performance that just never really fits the character. Instead I find myself relating to him as more of a Monk or Castle character than the historical Da Vinci. He’s also quite the talented swashbuckler with a sword.
The set pieces are a mixed bag here. The stuff that is real and was actually constructed is quite remarkable. Many of these sets are authentic in their smallest detail. They give wonderful places for these performances to live. The digital work, however, isn’t quite as spectacular. Much of it is obvious in the set extensions and backgrounds. They look OK but never quite convincing. This isn’t the same kind of effects work found in shows like Rome, which likely had larger budgets. It’s television, and it works, so you allow yourself to ignore these flaws. It’s filmed in England and not Italy, so the vista shots that are not digital won’t necessarily put you in the correct atmosphere. That really just means more CGI, unfortunately. Of course, the symbolic work in Da Vinci’s brain is intended to look artificial and serves a symbolic purpose. This is the kind of thing you’ll either love or hate.
The show was created by David S. Goyer, and he certainly brings some of that Dark Knight aspect to the show. Da Vinci even gets to use bats in a daring plot to escape a prison cell. You’d think Goyer a busy man, what with his current scripting chores on the upcoming Superman/Batman film. In the past television hasn’t really proved his medium, but here the restrictions of network television fall away and allow him to explore, and explore he does. The show is quite stylish, at times to its own distraction. Goyer is actively involved with the scripts and look of the show, and his handiwork is quite apparent.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The show has a bit of a dark nature to it. Colors are often muted and a bit hazy. Still, there are times when colors are allowed to pop just a bit, particularly reds. The effects are far too obvious, made more so by a rather sharp and detailed high-definition image presentation. Black levels are fair to good, and shadow definition does suffer at times. It’s a shame to see some of the action muddled in the dark. There are some fine textures here that do help create the proper atmosphere of time and place. It’s a dirty environment, for the most part, and the mud and dirt stand out clearly in the presentation. Costume textures provide nice touches as well.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 7.1 is a huge improvement here. The surrounds add wonderful atmosphere to the show. Dialog is perfection. The Bear McCreary score is absolutely outstanding. It’s a haunting melody that stays with you for a while. I’ve actually lingered on the menus just to listen to it.
Not much is known about the early years of Da Vinci, so that much of this fictionalized story doesn’t stand out quite so badly. At times they reach. The show comes to an end with this third season. The final episode certainly lends itself well as a series finale. Certainly, there’s room for more story, but it is a nice place in the story to end things. As much as I enjoyed the show, it might have been best to end it now. There’s nothing wrong with having something unique like this and saying goodbye after a couple or three years. It’s the kind of concept getting popular in cable television with shows now even changing their entire identities like American Horror Story or True Detective, every season. It’s time for something else to take this particular spot on our video shelves. You might not have seen anything quite like it before, but “no doubt you will again“.