GARY STEEL loves a bit of sword, sorcery and sex dressed up as educational history, and Knightfall fits the bill.
It helps not to think too much about the facts around the Knights Templar before embarking on the first series of Knightfall, the latest romp from the History Channel. Any student of religion knows that the story does not end cheerfully, but it doesn’t hurt to pretend that there could have been an alternative history where the vicious Catholic Church failed to walk away triumphant as both the acting government authority and the reigning connection to the deity.
In fact, it probably helps if you’re ignorant of all the facts because, in essence, Knightfall is just another historical romp where the saucy illicit liaisons and the elaborate fight sequences are all-important, and the lead character is entirely fictional. But those who found themselves enthralled with the mix of violence and soap operatics (all to a background of antiquity) in Rome will also enjoy Knightfall, even though it’s a wildly uneven ride in comparison.
With a preface showing the Knights Templar escaping the Holy Land with their precious cargo – the all-important Holy Grail – and then losing it, presumably forever at sea, the real action starts 15 years later in France. It’s 1298 and the military monks have an uneasy friendship with the King while acting on behalf of the Pope.
The two main strands of this story develop quickly and sensationally as we discover firstly that Landry du Lauzon (played by Tom Cullen) – the Templar who is in for the top job – is actually having a torrid affair with the Queen of France (Olivia Ross). This is complicated by the fact that the King (Ed Stoppard) and du Lauzon are best friends, sparring partners and confidantes, and complicated even more later in the series by the discovery that the Queen is pregnant with the monk’s baby. Secondly, when the most respected knight is murdered, it transpires that the Holy Grail has been found and secretly stashed away.
There’s a subsidiary story occurring as well, which involves the King’s murderous, scheming right-hand man, William de Nogaret (played by Julian Ovenden) and the politics of marriage. Suffice to say that the King’s daughter, Princess Isabella (Sabrina Bartlett) wants to marry the wrong prince, a move which may spark war with England. The story gets increasingly torrid and there are double-crossings of double-crossings as it progresses.
But more importantly, subsequent events in regards to the Holy Grail pit the Knights Templar against their boss, the Pope (Jim Carter), which leads to much institutional punishment and gnashing of swords. And inevitably, towards the end of the season, the King discovers the truth about his wife’s infidelity and pregnancy and, as could be expected, there’s hell to pay!
What makes Knightfall a lesser accomplishment than other faux-historical fare like Vikings or even Rome is its unevenness in tone, the variable quality of its lines and some fairly crummy CGI. To be fair, the only time the digital FX really grate is during the grand opening sequence, where the heathen Arabs are giving it all they’ve got to prevent the knights making their waterborne escape. It’s only because they try to give it all they’ve got, but it all just looks a bit fake.
At times, it’s as if Knightfall can’t decide whether to be a PG-rated sword and sorcery entertainment or to show the full, grisly extent of life back in 1298. At times the lines are simplistic and resort to cliché, which is a pity considering some of the acting talent on display. At first, it seems like one of those tame historical epics that doesn’t actually show any blood or swords slicing their way into flesh, and it’s a bit of a shock when later in the series things get quite gruesome. The irony is that the show is presented as though it might be suitable for family viewing, but the reality is that it’s quite shockingly violent at times. That’s apt for the story and the subject matter, but…
There are some really charismatic performances, the best of which comes from the Olivia Ross as the Queen of France in a role that must have been endlessly demanding, as she has to fluctuate between being the horny monk’s sexy thing, pretend to be the King’s chaste, faithful wife, and even lead a war party to foreign territory. She’s beautiful, bewitching and beguiling, and is in many ways the most courageous character.
There are much, much better shows on Neon and other streaming services, but despite its flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed Knightfall. It never loses ballast during its 10 episodes and goes from one intrigue or battle to another at the bat of an eyelid. Besides which, I’m really sick of so many shows being set in contemporary Los Angeles or New York, and the ancient setting, and the time in which the action takes place is what makes the show intriguing.
* Season 1 of Knightfall is streaming now on Neon.