Created by: David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren
Starring: George Blagden, Alex Vlahos, Tygh Runyan, Stuart Bowman, Anna Brewster
Running time: 1,060 minutes
Like its namesake, Versailles is perfectly constructed to give the audience what it wants. Sumptuous costumes, entrancing sets and steamy, sexy intrigue combine to create a drama that knows exactly how to hold a viewer captive. If you, like me, are a connoisseur of sexy historical TV shows, you’ll know there’s a lot of variation in quality. Versailles is up there with the best, not least because it actually has a plot.
In season one, Louis XIV embraces the role of King, taking control of his advisers and keeping a close eye on his vipers’ nest of courtiers. This doesn’t go down well with everyone, and throughout the season Louis is tested by the ever-shifting loyalties of the nobles and a full scale treasonous plot against him. At the same time, Louis’s vision of Versailles begins to appear, and the Sun King emerges as the world’s first recognisable brand.
Despite this rising sun, season two is darker than ever. With his brother gone, his right hand man turned against him, and his (primary) lover dead, Louis is more alone than ever before. At home, gilded courtiers drop like flies in a poison epidemic. Abroad, Guillame d’Orange gathers his forces, ready to strike.
If you’re thinking this sounds a bit serious, don’t worry. Straight off the bat, we're treated to a sequence of voiceover exposition. It's blatant, but I love Versailles for this, the way they relish in cliche and in doing so make it engaging. Marchal appears to have lost his accent, but who cares. We're straight back into the action; extravagance, theatre, pregnant sex, torture, murder. What more could you want?
But while it’s true that scandal, sex and espionage are Versailles’s bread and butter, there is substance hidden behind the sensational. In one of the best episodes of the series, Louis and Guillame sit alone in a room and chat. This marks a departure from the show’s reliance on spectacle, and the focus on dialogue and character development really pays off. Just for a moment, the pace slows. It’s the calm before the storm, and a clear turning point for Louis, who up until now has walked an uneasy line between being sympathetic and downright dislikeable.
Likewise, arguably the most compelling character is Louis’s brother Phillipe, who is caught between an antagonistic duty to the King and his passionate on-and-off relationship with the Chevalier de Lorraine. As well as being driven by this internal power struggle, externally Phillipe is hilariously sardonic, his irreverent cynicism balancing Louis’s pompous grandeur.
And then there’s the underdogs. For those who prefer a more rugged look, Louis’s head of police Marchal slinks through the series, torturing people, getting stabbed, that kind of thing. Despite this, we love him. Hey, pretty much everyone in this show is poisoning someone; if you’re coming to Versailles you leave your morals at the door.
Versailles has to be visual, and a lot of time and money has obviously been spent to get it right. The grandeur of the sets and the intricacy of the costumes is incredible, even without the gorgeous cinematography. This is another aspect which elevates Versailles beyond the usual bodice-rippers - it looks like a serious show. Yes, the dialogue often strays into the dramatic-but-ultimately-meaningless, but isn’t that fitting for a society entirely reliant on appearances to hold itself together?
Versailles is exactly what it says on the tin: pure escapist enjoyment. If you’re after a historical romp where the cast look like supermodels, you’re good to go - and if it’s plot and emotional depth you want, there just might be something here for you, too.
Versailles: The Complete Series One and Two Box Set is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.