Author George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series of books contain a sprawling, complex mythology of warring dynasties set in an alternate medieval universe. It would take a steady hand and a healthy bank balance to give them the screen treatment they deserve, and HBO hasn’t spared any expense in bringing its adaptation, Game Of Thrones, to our televisions. The horse and ermine budget alone must add up to seven figures. It’s a visually sumptuous looking series, with superb, earthy sets augmented by the odd smattering of discrete CG.
The first episode introduces a dizzying array of plotlines, almost to the point where you wonder whether writer/creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss can keep all the fantastical plates spinning. There are all kinds of treasonous intrigues and clandestine affairs going on, and it’s to both the credit of Game Of Throne‘s cast and director that the show remains a gripping watch, in spite of the amount of dialogue and backstory it has to impart.
Sean Bean heads up an exemplary, eclectic cast as Eddard Stark (his friends call him Ned), the lord of the northern castle of Winterfell. As Game Of Thrones begins, Stark is asked by his old friend, King Robert, to become his left hand man, after his previous employee died in mysterious circumstances.
It later becomes apparent that sources close to the king are all plotting to overthrow his reign, while far away to the east, two factions are joining forces to make their own claim for the throne.
Game Of Thrones is gory, adult stuff, and appears to have been designed specifically to rile Daily Mail readers, with its foul-mouthed young princes and unapologetic nudity. The rather self-consciously sensationalistic moments don’t always sit well with its grittier, more dramatic points, but then again, it would probably feel a little too po-faced without a few moments of crude levity.
Inevitably, there are some plot strands that are more interesting than others. I found myself less impressed with the growing union between the effete Targaryen dynasty and the barbarous Dothraki overseas than I was with the changing fortunes of Stark’s family, but its writers are wise enough to keep the story riding along at a storming pace.
There are some superb characters too. Bean employs his stoic persona as well as ever, but my personal favourite is Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, a lecherous, vertically challenged prince whose acid wit is worthy of ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon.
Despicable villainy is also in plentiful supply, with several characters revealing themselves to be far from pleasant as the first episode wears on. There’s a pleasing lack of sentimentality in Benioff and Weiss’ script, in fact, and Game Of Thrones‘ characters are universally flawed, interesting people. Lord Stark’s womanising while away at war resulted in an illegitimate son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), while Mark Addy’s king is a greedy man of growing girth who’s totally unaware of the duplicity of those around him.
While Game Of Thrones‘ male cast gets the most lines, there are nevertheless some great performances from Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark, while Lena Headey plays the part of Queen Cersei with the icy resolve of Lady Macbeth. Emilia Clarke has less to do as the forlorn Daenerys Targaryen, who’s stuck in a miserable union with Khal Drogo, the monosyllabic warlord of the Dothraki.
In fairness, it’s hinted that Clarke will have a bigger part to play later on, and it’s Jason Mamoa (who’ll soon be bearing his muscles again as Conan the Barbarian) who walks away with the trophy of Game Of Thrones‘ flattest character. He’s little more than a grunting, rutting animal in a loin cloth, bless him. Hopefully, the rest of the series will give his character more depth, too.
Viewed on its own two feet, though, this opening episode provides a confident, gripping entry point to what could have been a bewilderingly expansive saga. Game Of Thrones‘ canvas is enormous and continent spanning, but the superb cast keep the human element of the story front and centre.
Best of all, this opener manages something that many series debuts fail to achieve. It starts with a gripping, even frightening opening sequence, and concludes with a similar dramatic flash that left me clamouring to see the next episode.
If Game Of Thrones can continue along at a pace as brisk and exciting as this, then the series has a bright future ahead of it, which is more than can be said for some of its characters.
Game Of Thrones premieres in the UK on Sky Atlantic on 18th April
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