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A Knight's Tale Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Image When “A Knight’s Tale” was released five years ago, it caused some consternation because of its use of so much anachronistic music and other elements. Set in 14th century Europe, the movie is consciously, even self-consciously, non-realistic. It’s even defiantly so—at the first joust, the audience in the bleachers chants “We will rock you” and does the wave. Later, a stately court dance turns into something suited for a 21st century rock club. At times, this is amusing; that “We Will Rock You” bit is at least funny—but that dance is downright jarring, and not staged well enough to allow us to appreciate it for its contemporary styling.

This is far from the first movie to play with historical/stylistic elements. Way back in the 1940s, in “A Thousand and One Nights,” Phil Silvers turned up in his trademark horn-rim glasses and hipster dialogue. In the 1950s, “Red Garters” was styled to resemble a theatrical play, with fronts instead of buildings and other bizarreness. “Bugsy Malone” presented a gangster tale with a cast of children (including Jodie Foster) who fought each other with machine guns that fired whipped cream. Even medieval tale “Ladyhawke” (1985) featured a thunderous rock score rather than the more traditional orchestral background.

This kind of deliberate avoidance of realism is usually applied to comedies, and can work well in them. But writer-director Brian Helgeland wants it both ways—the startling and comic juxtaposition of modern day behavior with a medieval setting and story, but then he wants us later on to take his story seriously. And he almost does it. But the movie is too long. When romance rears its head, the story, which had been concentrating on the hero’s jousting exploits, slows to a standstill as romantic complications sort them out into precisely the pattern you’re always aware they will. There’s a little playfulness left in this, but a father-and-son element also enters the picture late in the game, and Helgeland wants us to take this with deep sincerity. It’s not easy to do in a movie in which medieval audiences chant “We Will Rock You” and farriers (metalworkers) include a Nike swish in their designs.

But the cast is in there plugging away. Heath Leger who, like Hugh Jackman, seems to be able to play any variety of leading man anyone could want, is charming and boyish as Will, a knight’s squire, who has a deep longing to compete in knightly jousting tournaments, all the rage that year. When his liege shits himself to death, Will, with the help of the other two squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), masquerades as a knight and starts winning. Of course, he acquires an arch-foe, Count Adhemar of Anjou (Rufus Sewell, looking like Ian McShane’s kid brother), but he also makes a somewhat mysterious friend among the jousting knights, Sir Thomas Colville (James Purefoy), really Edward, the Black Prince of Wales. You know he’ll come in handy later on.
The movie’s principal female characters are the lovely Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), whom the plot ludicrously requires insist that to show he loves her, Will must lose a match. And Kate (Laura Fraser), the woman farrier, who seems to hang around to be girlfriend to BOTH Roland and Wat. The script never satisfactorily explains her presence.

The most interesting of the supporting characters is Paul Bettany, as Geoffrey Chaucer, of all people, pre-Canterbury Tales (though he gets inspiration for some of them from people our heroes encounter). Bettany is on the money; his Chaucer may not be historically accurate, but he’s witty, clever and a good man to have introducing you. Just why Helgeland, who also wrote the script, included Chaucer is a bit of a puzzle. Perhaps he’s one of the few “celebrities” of the 14th century that modern audiences have even a remote chance of recognizing.

Helgeland directs with some vigor and strength, and for the first half of the film keeps things zipping along. But as he takes his tale more and more seriously, the drive and energy leach out of the film. The way he handles things strongly suggest he was more interested in staging realistic-looking jousts than in telling any kind of story. But each joust match is very much like every other joust match—the riders charge toward each other, and their lances disintegrate into toothpicks. Or not, if they’re the winner. He even includes an explanation of the scoring of jousts—1 point if the lance touches the opponents waist or neck, 2 points if it strikes the helmet, 3 for dismounting the opponent—and shows us how scores are announced, by small flags. All very well and good, but we’re supposed to be watching a tale, not joust day at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

The longer the film runs, the more serious it becomes, even shading into the pompous. Helgeland wants us to regard the sharp division between the nobility and all the lower classes as somehow both wrong and ideal. Of course, there comes the time where Will is exposed as an upstart, no nobleman at all—and only nobles are allowed to joust—but he then has to be turned into a nobleman. As long as the film was ahistoric, why couldn’t Will remain a squire and still fight in the jousts?

The father-and-son story isn’t very interesting, and occupies too much of the last third of the film. But the biggest blunder is when the writer-director occasionally suggests that Will is a Christ figure. Talk about taking your material too seriously….

In reality, it’s likely that most clothing in Europe in this period—the story is mostly set in France, Brittany and England—came in any color you liked, as long as you liked brown, dark green and gray. Here, however, there’s a real rainbow of colors and textures; at times, hi-def makes the screen seem almost palpable, as if you put your hands on it you’d feel the homespun garments, the wispy silk, the warm leather. Hi-def is very good with colors, broadening the available range and sometimes highlighting certain colors, more a function of the technique than a desired end. At the end, one of the characters is in stocks (you know, those things the Puritan put prisoners in), and onlookers bombard him with vegetables. The flung heads of lettuce look almost fluorescent, which is more disconcerting than anything else.

Hi-definition does, as promised, increase definition; patterns in clothing, freckles on faces, strands of hair and manes—all these are sharper, more defined. It sometimes takes a moment or two to adjust your perception. During the jousts—clearly the movie’s real reason for being—the shattering lances fly into flinders you can count individually.

The jousts are usually very well filmed, with Helgeland frequently using slow-motion to stretch out and emphasize the action and the grace of the opponents. But there are probably too many jousts; medieval tournaments included other types of combat, which the movie acknowledges but only barely deals with.

If you can grit your teeth through the mush stuff—much mushier than it should have been—you could have a good time with “A Knight’s Tale.” But its split intention—a kind of parody plus a kind of serious drama—hampers the film. It isn’t really helped by a scene after the credits in which a few of the supporting actors have a farting contest.

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