This brilliant little series has been treated unfairly: it was marketed poorly and largely ignored when it was first broadcast, and is now remembered - if it can be said be said to be remembered at all - only as the late Heath Ledger's first substantial leading role.
Ledger is indeed astonishing: still in his teens, he gives a performance of extraordinary authority and maturity, the first flaring of a talent that burnt so brightly but all too briefly.
He plays a young Irish prince determined to unite the many hostile tribes of Ireland against invasion by the Roman Empire. The historical evidence for such an invasion is dubious to put it mildly, but there are hints that there may have been Roman incursions into Ireland, and the Romans certainly made plans to that end, so it is not entirely impossible.
This serves as pretext for a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to cash in on the late-90s fashion for historical fantasy established by Hercules the Legendary Journeys and Xena Warrior Princess. Following their example, Roar benefits from some first class photography and beautiful scenery, with Queensland in Australia apparently standing in for Ireland!
It also benefits from a superb support cast: Lisa Zane and Sebastian Roche are a fine pair of commendably three-dimensional villains; Vera Farmiga and Melissa Georgeare both charming and feisty as Ledger's potential love interests; and, best of all, John Saint Ryan is perfect as Ledger's veteran right-hand man - the interplay between the older man and the youngster is one of the great delights of the series.
An unusually erudite script takes an intelligent view of politics, history, Celtic culture, and religion, with an unorthodox but by no means irreverent take on early Christianity. Indeed, its only weakness is that it tries to cram too much into thirteen 40-minute episodes, so that its rich texture is sometimes obscured and the advances in the story can seem a bit perfunctory. Yet there is still enough to suggest that there could have been something really extraordinary here, if only it had been given more time and space to grow.
About the reviewer: John Winterson Richards
An experienced freelance writer as well as a consultant, John Winterson Richards has been commissioned and paid to write over 500 articles in print and online. He was a regular guest on the Mind Your Own Business podcasts and a major contributor to that website's blog.
He is the author of 'The Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business.'
Under the name Charles Cromwell, John is the author of three novels, 'Young Herod,' 'Seven Days in Jerusalem,' and 'Leonardo Investigates: Death in Pisa.' All can be downloaded from Amazon.
He is the co-writer, with Andrew Harman, past Head of History at Filton High School, of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Judea and Rome, 100 BC - 33AD', also available on Amazon Kindle.
Published on September 16th, 2019. John Winterson Richards.