Emperor's young clothes

TNT portrays a young Caesar, before height of power.

He may not have been the "noblest Roman of them all" - according to Shakespeare that distinction fell to Brutus - but Julius Caesar changed all of Western civilization.

The writers of "Caesar," the new two-part TNT movie have come, have seen, and have conquered their towering historical subject. It airs June 29 and June 30, 8 p.m.-10 p.m.

An admirable film, "Caesar" gives viewers the long view of sweeping currents of history and magnificent affairs of the heart. And of course there are big battle scenes, horses, and catapults.

At the same time, it enfolds us in the intimacy of rich cultural detail. We feel ourselves swept back into that ancient, familiar, yet foreign civilization as if we belonged in it.

And that's just what director Uli Edel was after - that combination of thrilling spectacle and detailed cultural components that invites us to feel at home in an ancient civilization.

But why tell this particular story now?

"Caesar's story is always an important story," says Mr. Edel recently in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "That period of history can speak to us today - I can see many parallels ... it's what politics is about. In those days, the media was the Forum. You stood up and made speeches - at which Caesar excelled. He knew how to sell himself to the people, and that included how to dress and how to speak well." Caesar was vain - fussy about his hair and toga, as it turns out, says Edel.

But aside from the obvious political parallels Edel sees, all the famous movies and plays about Caesar portray him at the height of his power, already the conqueror of Gaul and Egypt.

"The story I wanted to tell is the one about how he came to power. He was an idealistic young man who had a great dream of Rome. He did love his first wife, Cornelia. He really did mourn for her, yet he used the occasion of her funeral to make himself known all over Rome. And gradually he became corrupted by power."

The speech Caesar gives to honor his beloved wife is opportunistic while remaining truthful. Here's a guy who knows how to get what he wants.

And Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under") brings the young Caesar to life, speechifying like a political pro, but also behaving with the tender sentiments of a deeply thoughtful man.

Sisto's restraint marks a real change in performance style - he keeps his thoughts seething just below the surface. The makeup looks a bit plastic as Caesar ages, but they had a minor budget and only 27 days to shoot each part. "It took 27 days to shoot the chariot race in 'Ben-Hur,' " laughs Edel.

Remember the overblown language of "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur"? Nothing pretentious (only a silly slip or two into modern vernacular) mars this "Caesar," which falls on modern ears more naturally than those old favorites.

Of all the performances here, it is the late Richard Harris as General Sulla, Caesar's first archenemy, that is most natural of all.

He creates a complicated sadist in Sulla - one who plays with his victims like a cat, but whose quiet, cold demeanor, as hard and sharp as volcanic rock, make his murderous whims all the more frightful. For those of us who love his kindly role in the Harry Potter movies, this performance will come as a stark contrast, demonstrating a mastery of the craft we seldom see on TV.

Tender love interests - Caesar and Cornelia, Pompey and Julia, and Brutus and Portia - stand in contrast to the barbarous cruelty of which all the men are capable. So when Caesar comes back from Egypt with Cleopatra as his prize, the contrast in his treatment of his wife Calpurnia helps measure the change in him. Good guys respect their wives.

The film draws lines between so many historical dots that differences and similarities between our own culture and theirs stand out in living color.

"When we see Brutus as a child playing in the garden with little Julia, we realize how close all thee families were," says Edel. "Everyone in Rome was so connected."

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