This Knightfall review contains spoilers.
Knightfall Episode 1
After the phenomenal and sustained success of Vikings, History dips into the scripted historical drama well once again to examine the exploits of one of the most enigmatic military orders the world has known. Knightfall makes a solid debut as it follows a band of Knights Templar on its quest to recover the Holy Grail lost some fifteen years earlier during The Siege of Acre at the hands of Muslim invaders.
The subject of countless documentaries, the search for the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper enjoys a more nuanced interpretation through the events and individuals connected to it during the period following the Crusades. The series premiere “You’d Know What To Do” introduces the warrior monks tasked with protecting Christianity’s most holy relic, and the battle that forces them to take the chalice out of the city as it’s being overrun by the sultan’s forces. Exposition-heavy, there’s still plenty of action in this debut episode as viewers get their bearings amidst a chaotic political climate.
With apologies to Dan Brown, there have been many reasonable explanations for the disappearance and possible whereabouts of the Grail, and while I certainly don’t purport to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of all the different theories, having it sink to the bottom of the bay during the escape from the Holy City works on multiple levels. And as Brother Landry (Tom Cullen/Downton Abbey) fights his way to the departing ships, we get a glimpse of how the action sequences will be handled. The integration of slow motion into the cavalry and hand-to-hand combat skirmishes is done well, particularly when we view an airborne arrow from the victim’s perspective. Pretty cool. Also pretty cool are the helmet cam shots which provide a perspective usually reserved for GoPro footage.
Nevertheless, as with any serialized show, the characters and plot must form the base that the audience either latches onto or walks away from, and Knightfall gets off to a strong start particularly with the palace intrigue between King Philip of France and his lawyer William De Nogaret (Julian Ovenden/Downton Abbey). Fifteen years have passed since the Grail sank intact to the bottom, and the Knights Templar have become ensconced in Parisian life and pledged their loyalty to protecting Philip and his realm. Philip (Ed Stoppard/The Crown) and Landry establish a relationship whose closeness seems destined to conflict with the king’s adviser who appears to have his own agenda.
All one has to do is look at the pedigrees of the cast to know that expectations will remain high, and this first episode does not disappoint. Cullen’s commanding presence sets the tone, and though his time on screen appears to be finished, the Templar Master Godfrey (Sam Hazeldine/The Huntsman) steals the show early on with his bravery and physicality during the battle scenes. It’s a shame we won’t get to see more of the Master with his long time pupil Landry, but their time together is not wasted. Riding alone, Godfrey is attacked by highwaymen and manages to kill all but one and utter the episode’s best line before succumbing to his wounds. “Next time bring more men.”
The young farm boy Parsifal (Bobby Schofield) comes to the knight’s aid and is then tasked with returning the dying man’s sword to Paris, which later provides the impetus for a renewed search for the Grail. The boy’s innocence is short lived, but now that he has nothing waiting for him at his farm, its seems likely he will become Landry’s protege.
Much of the episode’s tension emanates from the religious conflicts among Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but now that the story has moved to France, it’s the anti-Semitic sentiment that drives much of the narrative. Philip finds himself in a difficult position since he owes the Templars a great deal of money, and even though his relationship with Landry appears strong, eventually the time will come to pay back the loans. De Nogaret suggests simply taking money from the Jews living in Paris setting up an eventual showdown with his king and queen who prefer a more tolerant and sympathetic view. Complicating this scenario is the brazen murder of a Christian subject by yet-to-be-apprehended Jew.
Though Philip and Landry compliment each other, and the Templars have become financially quite successful, Landry longs to get back on the road and find a purpose higher than making and hoarding money. Like the king, he feels the safety of the Jews falls under his purview, but it’s more than just duty; he sees it as the moral thing to do. At the same time, Cullen convincingly plays Landry as a man struggling with his failures both as a man and as a monk.
The history of the Knights Templar has been one filled with mystery and intrigue, so when we learn that the woman Landry sees secretly on the side is none other than Queen Joan, it sets up what we fear will be the disintegration of the friendship and alliance between Landry and Philip. After overhearing De Nogaret’s plot to murder and rob the Jews during their “forced evacuation,” Joan sends word to Landry instead of her husband. Though this may not be an ideal circumstance, and he agonizes over the legitimacy of the fight, Landry gets his wish as the knights return to warrior status and take on the mercenaries hired to carry out De Nogaret’s plan. Cullen comes across as every bit the statesman, but he’s at his best wielding a sword during the heat of battle.
Although it remains to be seen whether or not she’ll become integral to the story, a young Jewish woman throws down her belongings during the trek out of the city and picks up arms against the attackers. She acquits herself well even though this is likely her first experience with close quarters combat, or combat of any kind for that matter. Who she is remains unknown, and though the knights thank her for her bravery, they move on presumably to confront De Nogaret. It’s during the battle scenes that the setting plays nearly as large a role as the actors. Filmed primarily in Prague, the backdrops are breathtaking though they do at times get lost amidst the fighting.
Aside from the first rate acting, Knightfall’s strength resides in the lies, deceptions, and behind-the-scenes machinations that are just beginning to percolate. While the palace subterfuges take place above and below the surface, the Holy Grail is still out there waiting to be recovered, and now that the monks have a lead, how long will it be before Landry and the knights turn their attention towards that sacred mission? Even in death Godfrey manages to let his men know that the object they seek may be closer than they realize.
Visually, Knightfall is at its best when it hones in on more intimate scenes even if they take place in battle. While the CGI effects don’t detract from the opening sequences at Acre, the don’t add much either. The use of slow motion and high angle shots during the close quarters fighting, however, do augment the visceral nature of the experience.
Knightfall offers a strong debut with a nice blend of action and character development as it skillfully sets up a compelling web of treachery, deceit, and lust. Though the heart of the story appears to be the search for the Grail, there’s enough going on along the edges to keep viewers initially satisfied.