Turbulent history makes for decidedly turgid cinema in this ploddy cinematic rendition of the French Revolution. From the 1789 storming of the Bastille onwards, the events in question changed the course of world history, as the populace rebelled against the status quo, and constitutional ferment led to (spoiler alert!) the guillotine for the king. The trouble is that writer-director Pierre Schoeller seems a bit flummoxed at how to translate all this into suitably dynamic storytelling. Attempting to pack four years of revolutionary uproar into two hours only results in a superficial précis that’s neither a worthwhile history lesson nor a thrusting drama.
Familiar French faces pepper the cast – including the Dardenne brothers’ stalwart Olivier Gourmet, as a salt-of-the-earth glassblower – as the focus shifts between a group of surprisingly engaged and articulate ordinary Parisians determined to have their say, and sundry periwigged politicians in the increasingly powerful National Assembly. Some of them want to defend property ownership and save King Louis XVI, while others more attuned to the popular mood argue for a new human-rights-based constitution with no place for the monarchy. All of them want a say, which means a whole lot of worthy wordage throughout, intercut with modestly budgeted recreations of the Women’s March on Versailles and the massacre of protesters on Paris’s Champs de Mars.
But do we care about any of it? Not so much, since the working-class characters are thinly drawn – especially Gaspard Ulliel’s nominal lead, Basile, a thieving rapscallion turned musket-toting revolutionary – while famed historical figures like Louis Garrel’s severe lefty Robespierre simply pitch up to deliver their speeches. In the end, we emerge with an approximate overview of the period, but little sense of what the film actually wanted to say about it. It’s not one to leave you rushing to man the barricades, and there are significantly fewer laughs than ‘Carry On: Don’t Lose Your Head’.