Monday, August 15, 2022

Leonardo, on CW

Da Vinci is one of the major reasons why we have the term “Renaissance man,” because he was one of the originals (and one of the most important). Yet, he hardly ever finished anything. At least that is the impression viewers get from his latest episodic series treatment. Creators Frank Spotnitz & Steve Thompson focus more on the intrigue, scandal, and ambiguous sexual orientation, which is surely why it was acquired by the CW, where it premieres tomorrow.

Leonardo Da Vinci is keenly aware of his illegitimacy and the sense of abandonment he carries all his life. Nonetheless, his middle-class notary father helped him attain an apprenticeship under Andrea del Verrochio. Not surprisingly, the student’s promise soon shows the potential to eclipse the master. Da Vinci’s work even attracts an offer of patronage from Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, whom Da Vinci rashly turns down, out of loyalty to Verrochio.

During his apprentice years, Da Vinci also forges an unusual relationship with Caterina de Cremona, a lowly servant, with ambitions many would consider well beyond her station. They do not exactly sleep together, because Spotnitz and Thompson clearly suggest that just isn’t Da Vinci’s thing. However, they still have a deeply felt, but highly tumultuous relationship. In fact, as the series opens, Da Vinci stands accused of her murder by Stefano Giraldi of the Milan constabulary. The truth will be revealed in flashbacks, prompted by his interrogations.

Admittedly, Da Vinci’s body of work is frustratingly limited compared to many of his contemporaries, but
Leonardo often makes him look like a serial procrastinator. Dan Brown fans will also be annoyed Spotnitz and Thompson never show him incorporating any Fibonacci sequences into his masterworks. The new series at least halfway accurately chronicles the major events of the Da Vinci historical record, especially compared to David Goyer’s Da Vinci’s Demons. However, the way the latter portrayed Leonardo as a carousing degenerate was much more entertaining than the humorless angst of Aidan Turner (from the new Poldark) this time around.

Nonetheless, Turner generates more than enough brooding and sexual confusion to keep the melodrama chugging along. Eventually, he and Matilda De Angelis (playing de Cremona) develop some intriguing chemistry together. Of course, James D’Arcy is reliably arrogant as the villainous Ludovico. The real problem is Freddy Highmore is badly miscast as the intrepid Giraldi. The part needed someone like Tim Roth, who can play it convincingly sly and cynical, before rediscovering his idealism, thanks to Da Vinci’s art. Highmore just wasn’t up to it, but he was an executive producer, so he was a fact of life.

The series also takes far too long to get going. Yet, somehow it also manages to overlook major attributed works, like
Portrait of a Musician. However, when it finally gets to the mystery itself, Leonardo is rather clever. It really should have been shorter and tighter than eight episodes.

Throughout out it all,
Leonardo nicely recreates the splendors of Renaissance Florence and Milan, with a bit CGI help. The costumes are fab, but the streets are too clean and everyone is too carefully coifed and made-up. Of course, that also makes it all more pleasant to look at. (Do we really want to see era-appropriate sewage practices?) However, its eagerness to lean into sexual identity themes comes across as an obvious attempt for current cultural capital. The results are quite mixed, so it is hard to recommend an eight-episode investment in Leonardo when it starts tomorrow (8/16) on the CW.