Boudica’s revolt is one of those historical incidents everyone is fascinated by, presumably because it’s easy to make the Roman Empire stand in for the empire du jour and because there are no pesky modern political ramifications to her struggle. Not to non-lunatics, anyway. As a result, it gets made into a lot of bad art, and 2003’s Boudica is no exception. It stars Alex Bloody Kingston, an actress of, shall we say, limited range. Follow along at home!
We begin in History, a time when, as we know, everyone was mad greasy.
Boudica is throwing a sword into a river and talking to the camera. She introduces us to the story; it’s 50-something AD, and Boudica is married to Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni, who is greeeeeeeaaaaaasy.
She also has two daughters, one of whom is a young Emily Blunt. The Romans come to make peace with the Iceni. Hotheaded Dervalloc wants to kill them, cryptic Magior is cryptic (and hey, it’s Gary Lewis, from Gangs of New York, in a coat covered in little metal snail shells!) …
… but finally Prasutagus, basically a nice guy and tired of war, agrees to make peace. Roman soldiers make snotty comments about the Iceni. Finally the Emperor Claudius himself turns up to shake on the treaty, impressing Prasutagus and Boudica with the fact that he’s basically a nice guy. This is well-played; Claudius is shown as someone who’s so aware of his power that he isn’t at all pushy about it.
The Roman soldiers are apparently all highly decorated veterans, because they’re covered in phalerae. All of them.
And their heads are covered in baco-foil? Also, they are armed with old-fashioned metal bin lids.
Times are peaceful, but they can’t last. Claudius gets sick and dies, possibly poisoned by his wife Agrippina in order to bring her boy Nero to the throne. Nero is a little shit:
Meanwhile, Prasutagus also dies, possibly poisoned by Magior. Without Claudius’s steady hand on the tiller, the Romans start taking Iceni slaves, something Boudica says was never part of the deal. When she objects, villainous tax dude Catus Decianus has her flogged and her daughters raped. She nonetheless gets her daughters to stand up and walk out of the Roman camp, where they declare that the treaty is ended and shit is, effectively, on.
They infiltrate the local Roman camp and kill it up a treat, then move on to sack Colchester, destroying the temple of the Divine Claudius. This is super unconvincing looking, but it doesn’t really seem that way in a photo; you kind of have to watch it with motion. Basically, the Britons tunnel under the famous statue of Claudius, then collapse it when Boudica makes a threatening gesture. So yeah, the Iceni used their superior engineering knowledge to fuck with the Romans, an incident history somehow failed to record. Anyway, a cute little kid cuts off and brandishes Decianus’s head.
Which is pretty hardcore, one of the film’s few genuinely disconcerting moments. (Even the rape scene is played up with Decianus as a smirking sadist rather than the much more chilling idea that this is just how things are done.) The massacre of the civilian population is referred to, but only just.
Shocked at having to hold the L, Nero dispatches Suetonius Paulinus to sort out the rebellion (in truth, he was already in Britain). Suetonius is one of the highlights of this film: he thinks the rebellion was caused by Decianus being an idiot, and he’s fully aware that Nero’s a prize little bastard. He has a conversation with one of his officers in which he explains that the Iceni are full of passion and heart while the Romans are just doing their jobs, and regrets this, but is also perfectly clear that the Romans are going to win handily. There’s a great little exchange as he goes to bed.
STOOGE: Good night, sir. And a glorious victory for the Emperor tomorrow.
PAULINUS: Mmm. Quite.
The morning dawns bright and clear. Boudica delivers a rousing speech about how the Iceni can’t lose, while Suetonius delivers a confident and much more accurate speech about how the Romans can’t lose. Then the battle starts, and Suetonius’s army whups the shit out of the Iceni.
During the battle, the Romans use torches as a version of those light-up wands they use at airports to signal to other parts of that army. In daylight. So visible! The weird thing is that the Romans had a system of military signalling using trumpets and so on, so I’m not sure why they didn’t just have that.
Boudica possibly does a runner. Emily Blunt gets knocked out on the field, but Magior uses his Druidical magic to make her invisible and she blends into the crowd. We cut to the statue of Boadicea in London, with a schoolteacher (is it, in fact, Emily Blunt again? I’m not going back to check) leading her charges past it. The end.
So, first off, this film is not very good. It looks shoddy as hell, it’s riddled with corny historical-epic stereotypes, and Alex Kingston’s tough swagger is even more unconvincing here than it is in Doctor Who.
It isn’t really her fault, I don’t think — she keeps getting asked to bark out some tough-guy lines with no real context, or go from zero to mad-as-hell in a split second. During the bit after the rape scene, when she’s trying to get her daughters on their feet and back to safety, she just uses the same emotionless declamatory tone she uses for everything that isn’t affection.
Needless to say, this movie looks like ass. Celts in hairy cloaks, swirly face-paint everywhere, Romans draped in bedsheets, armies of a couple of dozen people, dodgy special effects. Some nice landscapes.
Historically, it’s the usual imposition of a Romantic narrative on a bare-bones set of historical facts, and it only glances at the things that make the Iceni revolt less than noble, like the massacres of civilian populations. At one point one of the other British chiefs makes it clear that he and the lads are going to rape and enslave a bunch of people in London and nobody bats an eyelid, but mostly it’s presented as a simple struggle for autonomy / quest for revenge. Although the Romans do call it “terrorism” with every breath. I also wish Nero wouldn’t have spent so much time saying “God!” and “what the hell,” not because they’re references to Christianity but just because they sound so modern. Also, by the tenth time Boudica called Prasutagus a “warrior king” I wanted to kill them both.
The main thing the movie does to mess up the history is to compress everything, like they usually do. Prasutagus and Claudius died years apart, for instance, but you don’t get much sense of the passage of time in the film, which makes it even weirder when people teleport back and forth to Rome. Other than that, most of the facts are in place, although I doubt Boudica ran around with two swords killing people personally.