Empty8-11 p.m., Saturday, June 2
When it comes to epic TV movies, whether from the Bible or classic literature, you can count on exec producers Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr. to get all the little details right. Costumes look authentic; sets are precise. But as for the bigger picture, that's been trickier.
In "Marco Polo," the cinematography is dazzling and the production design is meticulous. But it's not enough to divert your attention from the weak points of this three-hour program -- its plodding story, marginal character development, thin dialogue and bizarre casting.
The telefilm is, in many ways, faithful to accounts of the 13th century Venetian trader. As depicted in this film, Marco Polo (Ian Somerhalder) traveled with his father and uncle on their second visit to China and its emperor, Kublai Khan. They had a gold tablet, given by Khan, that entitled them to safe passage. And the two friars who started out with them turned back in fear and disbelief.
In this film, Polo's father and uncle immediately return to Venice and leave him behind. Historical accounts say they all stayed for 17 years. Nor is there anything but writer Ron Hutchinson's imagination to account for the story of Polo's infatuation with one woman taken captive by Khan and then, later, her sister (both parts played by Desiree Siahann).
One of the most fascinating parts of the real story was how Marco Polo overcame the language barrier to the point where, for a time, he served as a diplomat for Khan. In the ancient world of this film, everyone conveniently speaks English.
Still, the problem is not that Hutchinson departed a little from historical reality but that he didn't depart enough or, more precisely, that his re-imagining of the historical saga is flat and unexciting. It plays out like a succession of diary entries. Each act break practically invites viewer defections.
An even bigger problem is the loony decision to cast Brian Dennehy as Kublai Khan. You read correctly. Better still, let me create a word picture. Imagine an empire filled with authentically ethnic Mongol lords, ladies, warriors and servants, all of them ruled by Dennehy who, even with shaved head and facial hair, looks like the Albino Emperor.
Maybe the Halmis thought the project needed an American star and turned to Dennehy, who has a long list of impressive credits. This won't be one of them. He goes through the entire telefilm growling and snarling, which is probably the best you can do with Hutchinson's dialogue. Somerhalder works hard at playing Polo but the character never reaches heroic proportions. His daring attempts to rescue enslaved women always end badly.
Director Kevin Connor does what he can to emphasize the production qualities but, in the end, you're again left admiring the ambitions of the Halmis and wondering when the results will live up to them.
RHI Entertainment presents in association with Memesys GmbH & Co. KG
Executive producers: Robert Halmi Sr., Robert Halmi Jr., Uwe Schott
Producers: Matthew O'Connor, Michael O'Connor, Shan Tam
Director: Kevin Connor
Teleplay: Ron Hutchinson
Director of photography: Thomas Burstyn
Production designer: Ma Kwong Ming
Editor: Barry Peters
Music: Ken Thorne
Art directors: Wang Jian Guo, Shi Bin
Costume designer: Thomas Chong
Casting: Lynn Kressel, Poping Auyeung
Marco Polo: Ian Somerhalder
Kublai Kahn: Brian Dennehy
Pedro: B.D. Wong
Temulun/Kensai: Desiree Siahann
Chabi: Luo Yan
Chenchu: Lim Kay Tong