A French film about William the Conqueror on newly-acquired Amazon Prime, you say? When pal Kit tipped me off about this one, I put it down on the list to watch when I got some free time. After all, William I is one of Britain’s national heroes and national villains, and it would be interesting to see what he looked like from the other side of the Channel, right?
It’s not that bad, to be honest; it’s just a little … matter-of-fact.
We start on the eve of invasion in 1066. William is waiting to launch the invasion of England, tentatively waiting for the news — presumably of Hardrada’s invasion — to arrive. He appoints Robert Curthose his heir in a moment that is supposed to be symbolic of hope and future promise, both weird emotions to associate with Robert.
Anyway, all this talking about Robert’s future prompts gruff old William FitzOsbern, here called “Wilhelm,” presumably to avoid confusion, to reminisce to young Robert about when William were just a lad …
… and that’s the actual story of the movie. It’s about the anarchy that prevailed in Normandy following the death of Robert the Magnificent. Ickle babby William is forced to go scurrying around the countryside with only a handful of loyal vassals, etc., etc., while mean old baddie Ranulf chases him around. I think Ranulf is one of the nobles who rebelled against William in the 1040s, expanded into a generic villain who murders people out of hand and sneers and wears black.
Anyway, good old Osbern entrusts William to a band of Vikings who are pagans — in the 1040s? I guess there were probably still some pagans kicking around then, but the whole group? I dunno.
Anyway, William goes off to have adventures with the Vikings, who tell him the story of Rollo in a scene that’s kind of grey-blue and washed out to indicate that it’s a flashback, despite the fact that this is also a flashback. There is a witchity Viking lady named Hel, which … well, whatever. They get him to safety, having delivered their history lesson without any of that nasty old conflict or plot.
William and his companions Wilhelm and Gui frolic in the rustic simplicity of wherever it is and then they all grow up into adults who similarly enjoy frolicing in rustic simplicity and a-chasing the wild deer in a scene that will make you too say OK, OK, I get it! Gui falls in the water, which is extremely hilarious. Ah, youthful hijinks!
All this good-natured hilarity can have the effect of making you realise that you are halfway through a film about William the Conqueror and there has been not one battle and not much in the way of intrigue; mostly just some pontificating on the nature of leadership and a good deal of travel. However, we are starting to get the feeling that Gui is a surly little swine who is going to end up betraying everyone.
If I had to sum this middle sequence up in one word, I would call it leisurely. Lots of slow, gentle conversations. Not a lot of tension or excitement. You might find this puzzling until you watch the big fight scene that takes place when bad old Ranulf tries to kill young William. It’s … ropey. It has the universal ropey signifier of people in mail coats dropping dead when someone drags a sword over their tummies, which is a particular bugbear of mine, largely because it happens about every 30 seconds in Game of Thrones.
I don’t know if you have ever worn a mail coat, but they are made of interlinked metal rings. Fundamentally, they are made of metal, and although they have vulnerabilities they are pretty good at protecting people from sword cuts. I realise that that makes fights hard to choreograph, because fighting someone who has body armour and a shield is a tiresome process of trying to hit them in the face, hands, shins, or whatever and not super cool looking, but there you have it. The tummy-cut just looks dumb.
So a fight happens while portentous video-game-tier music plays. Ranulf kills Osbern and tries to pressure William into abdicating, but William is defiant. “Wilhelm” grows a scruffy little beard.
Then stuff starts to happen! A really mild Viking funeral! Grappling hooks! Sneaking into places! Riding around on a horsie! Daring escapes! Basically, the film turns the “adventure” dial up to 75% and kicks into a sequence of fights, infiltrations, escapades and strategic discussions that would have made a mildly disappointing episode of your third-favourite adventure.
Oh snap! It turns out Gui has switched sides and is working with Ranulf, so he and “Wilhelm” have a bit of a half-speed fight and Gui gets beat, a fact that is a total surprise because … he has been consistently shown throughout the movie to be the student in their swordfightin’ relationship … ?
Wounded, William is captured by a rebel baron — oh wait, no he’s not! He’s a nice baron after all, and with his help William goes off to France and meets Henri I, who offers to help.
I have to say that the costumes, armour and weapons in this movie mostly look pretty good except for some of the named characters, which makes me believe there are a lot of reenactors in this thing. They certainly do that reenactor thing of keeping time by drumming your weapons against your shields as you march, and they have the usual reenactorly high ratio of swords and other hand weapons to spears.
Battle battle, stab stab, horsie horsie, shakey camera movements, Henri I looking like a weenie because this is a movie about Normans by gum, choirs are singing so you know it’s important, William captures Ranulf, and “Wilhelm” doesn’t kill Gui because Gui lived to a ripe old age. And so we flash forward to “Wilhelm” telling the same story to ickle Robert and huzzah huzzah we’re off to conquer England the end.
You know, I didn’t think you could make a dull movie about the life of William the Conqueror, and yet here we are.