'Versailles': TV Review

A royal mess.

A deathly dull U.K.-France-Canada co-production about the reign of Louis XIV makes its way to American shores on Ovation.

The French monarch Louis XIV ruled over his country for nearly 73 years. The two-part premiere episode of Ovation's new historical drama about the early days of Louis' reign feels about as long, though more because of its stultifying mediocrity than any brazen awfulness. Stem to stern, you can see evidence of the better, or at least the more involving television series that surely inspired this U.K.-France-Canada co-production (which has already aired abroad). A little Downton Abbey sass. Some Game of Thrones boobage and bloodshed . A whole lot of soap-operatic salaciousness a la The Tudors or The Borgias, minus their much more compelling casts … the leads especially.

Vikings' George Blagden, it shouldn't surprise, is no Jonathan Rhys Myers or Jeremy Irons. His Louis is a 28-year-old narcissist, introduced having a wet dream in which a comely beauty dances through Versailles palace's famed Hall of Mirrors. The thing is, the hall hasn't been built yet, so his dream is both erotic and prophetic. Versailles is, at the start of the series, merely the family hunting lodge (an admittedly big lodge) in which Louis has holed up to strategize how best to end the civil war known as the Fronde.

The history is complex, but really, the screwing is more important. So many of these historical series, beneath their luxuriant, palace intrigue trappings, essentially boil down to who's sleeping with whom. Louis has his many mistresses, primarily Henriette (Noémie Schmidt), the wife of his brother Philippe (Alexander Vlahos). That arrangement works out fairly well since Philippe prefers the company of men, namely Chevalier (Evan Williams), a smug ladder-climber who uses his sadistic power over the king's brother to insinuate himself into court life.

The premiere also deals with the perhaps apocryphal case of Louis' wife Marie-Thérese (Elisa Lasowski), the Spanish-born Queen of France who gives birth to the bastard child of an African dwarf court jester. Her indiscretion provides a little genuinely absorbing drama, if only because Lasowski performs the hell out of her thinly veiled disgust for Louis and the various sycophants who try to court royal favor. Most of the other actors, the men especially, appear lost or out of place, declaiming thick exposition and venomous threats in Brit-accented English (ah, international co-productions!), all while wearing poorly tailored frills and laughable long wigs that suggest they're trying to unleash their inner Fabio.

A bigger problem: The series — the most expensive in French history, according to some reports — looks astoundingly cheap. Pierre-Yves Bastard's cinematography often has a low-fi digital sheen that gives it that unearthly gloss associated with improperly calibrated televisions. Many of the exterior shots are augmented with shoddy CGI, most evident in a sequence in which Louis and a pack of wolves do some territorial staring-down. (You're no Liam Neeson either, Blagden.) The only truly inspired element of this sorry affair is the music: The opening credits theme is M83's spine-tingling "Outro," from their 2011 release Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. And the anachronistic electronic score by Eduardo Noya Schreus, aka NOIA, gives a galvanizing jolt to what is otherwise an irritatingly unoriginal production. 

Cast: George Blagden, Alexander Vlahos, Tygh Runyan, Stuart Bowman, Amira Casar, Evan Williams, Noémie Schmidt, Anna Brewster, Sarah Winter, Elisa Lasowski.
Creators: Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft

Airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on Ovation.