Marco Polo is one of history’s greatest explorers, and yet he’s arguably best known as the name of a water-based game of blind man’s buff. Hardly a fitting tribute for the man who basically introduced China to the rest of the world – but that might be about to change.
Following on the heels of its successful collection of original series (and Hemlock Grove), Netflix has pulled out all the stops for an epic, globe-spanning adaptation of the itinerant Venetian’s life, with plenty of huge battles, court skulduggery and gritty realism thrown in. Yep, it’s basically their take on HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones, but this new series actually holds up pretty well against the world of Westeros, mainly thanks to the genuinely turbulent period of real history it’s based on.
Newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy plays Marco, a younger version of the famous explorer who’s dumped at the court of Mongolian warlord Kublai Khan by his opportunistic father who’s looking to open up new trade routes with the East. Soon, the young Polo is thrown in a cell, washed and roughly shaved then left to stew for weeks (rather undoing the point of the washing and shaving) and forced to work in service to Khan. He plans his escape – until an imperious princess (Zhu Zhu) catches his eye, and he begins to adapt to his new surroundings while learning the ways of his masters.
Suitably epic in the Thrones model, Marco Polo is at its strongest when portraying the little-told history (at least in my experience) of Kublai Khan’s dwindling Empire. The grandson of Genghis, Emperor Khan (played with authority by Benedict Wong, who you may recognise from the “Countdown” episode of the IT Crowd) must contend with rivals for his crown and challenges from the Chinese, culminating in a tense one-on-one battle at the end of episode two that’s impressively realised with some genuine emotional heft.
Unfortunately, based on the first two episodes, audience surrogate/protagonist Marco is a little less interesting, with an ill-defined talent for “describing” that endears him to Khan and not much to do except wander about thinking about trade. Still, Richelmy gives a likable enough performance and it’s early days – hopefully his fish-out-of-gondola storyline will pick up as the series goes on.
There’s also a lot of nakedness and sex, as seems to be officially mandated in gritty historical drama these days, and while it doesn’t exactly detract from the drama it can be a little unnecessary – in particular one odd scene which sees Marco strolling through a brothel while resisting the imploring concubines as some kind of test of his honour.
Still, all in all it’s an impressive piece of drama from an on-demand service that seems to have an eye for good content (and Hemlock Grove). Certainly, Marco Polo hasn’t got the instant smack-you-in-the-face brilliance of other Netflix series like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, and the opening episode takes an extremely long time to explain who any of the characters are (the first scene begins in media res, and is very confusing without context). But it looks to be one to stick with – even if just to pick up notes on a fascinating period of history, or see what that guy from that episode of the IT Crowd did next…