Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 13, 2003)
For whatever reason, films set in medieval times just don’t seem to do a lot of business. From Excalibur to Dragonslayer and with many stops in between, movies have tried a mix of approaches toward the material, but the box office receipts remain modest at best. Has there ever been a genuine hit that worked with that era? Probably, but I can’t think of one off of the top of my head, and some modest research turned up no exceptions to my rule.
In 2001, we got yet another attempt to plumb the period, and this one looked like it had a shot. A Knight’s Tale starred rising heartthrob Heath Ledger and took a gleefully anachronistic tone that looked like it might connect modern audiences to ye olden days. However, the results weren’t all that positive. It grabbed a $56 million gross, which was pretty disappointing for a big summer flick.
A Knight’s Tale holds the distinction of being one of very few “popcorn movies” that my father liked. Unfortunately, his endorsement usually means the kiss of death to me; Dad and I don’t often agree on films. Although I didn’t dislike Tale, I can’t say I concurred with my father’s opinion, as I thought it was a generally entertaining but unspectacular piece of work.
A Knight’s Tale follows the story of William Thatcher (Ledger), squire to a knight named Sir Ector. At the film’s start, Ector buys the farm after a jousting match. Since he almost achieved victory - which meant a nice payday for William and his cohorts Wat (Alan Tudyk) and Roland (Mark Addy) - William decides to pretend to be Ector to finish the contest. He does so, they get their loot, and that’s that, right?
Wrong. William takes this success as a sign and decides to fake nobility so he can enter these sorts of tournaments on his own. Neither Wat nor Roland seem enthused about this, but they agree to give it a shot, and a chance meeting with a down-on-his-luck - and naked - Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) offers possible assistance; he can forge the necessary documentation of William’s heritage. Rechristened Sir Auric von Lichtenstein of Gelderland, William quickly hits the field and becomes a success.
Along the way, matters become complicated. As one expects from a movie, William develops both a love interest and an archenemy. In the former capacity we find Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), a lovely but elusive young woman, and in the latter category stands Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), a nasty dude who accurately sees William/Auric as a challenge to his jousting hegemony.
With this cast of characters in place - plus Kate (Laura Fraser), the most beautiful blacksmith you’re ever likely to see - Tale takes an inevitable path. William/Auric becomes the top dog but doesn’t get his ultimate goal to fight Adhemar because the latter is off at war. We also see a subtext in which William needs to discover himself and come to terms with his roots; his father (Christopher Cazenove) sent him off to be Ector’s assistant at a very young age, and William seems to fear his eventual homecoming. All of this leads toward the predictable climactic battle between William and Adhemar.
I won’t divulge all the details about what occurs, but let’s just say that A Knight’s Tale holds few surprises. However, I don’t really regard that as a flaw. The film’s essentially just another underdog against the odds story, sort of like Rocky with staffs and horses. The vast majority of movies feature pretty predictable plots, so I think it’s much more important to see what the director does with the material; I worry less about the originality of the story itself. Actually, sometimes attempts to alter the usual course of things seem worse than the standard sequences; such changes can come across as forced and self-conscious.
Anyway, you’ll find few surprises during Tale, though director Brian Helgeland leavens the activity with an anachronistic tone. He makes no attempt to create an authentic rendition of the era, and this attitude comes through clearly during the first jousting scene; fans sing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” while air horns bleat in the background. Helgeland follows this with quite a few other attempts to meld eras.
While this attitude possessed a potential spark, I thought it ultimately seemed like little more than an attempt to be different for the sake of being different. At its heart, Tale was a very traditional story, and it progresses in an unexceptional manner. It felt as though Helgeland introduced the anachronistic elements simply to make the movie stand out in some way. That’s fine, I suppose, but I thought those bits added nothing to the film, and they appeared gratuitous. I didn’t think the rock music and other nods to modern society really harmed the flick, but I felt they didn’t contribute to it either. Helgeland lacks the skill and style to pull them off fully, so they seemed tacked on to a degree.
Really, very little about Tale made it stand out, though the jousting scenes were surprisingly vivid and exciting. Jousting always seemed like a dull sport, as all we see are a couple of guys who try to knock each other off their horses. Hey, at least the videogame Joust put the participants on ostriches to enliven the proceedings!
However, Helgeland was able to bring a great deal of flair and impact to the events. He brought home the intense violence of the games and made them appear much more brutal and rough than usual. As such, these scenes provided some of the movie’s best elements, and they allowed the film’s ending to become truly climactic.
Otherwise, Tale seemed like a pretty ordinary flick. Ledger will have to wait for another day to attain major stardom, and I saw little in his performance to indicate much beyond his pretty face. Actually, I think he’s a decent enough actor, and he’s done well with supporting roles in movies like The Patriot. I just don’t feel like he can quite carry a movie on his own yet. He seemed vaguely likable and engaging as William, but he failed to provide a real star presence or magnetism.
Most of the supporting cast offered able work, though none really stood out from the crowd. Sidekicks Wat, Roland and Chaucer had their own defining characteristics, but the movie never fleshed them out much, so they all felt ill defined as a whole. As for Jocelyn, Lisa Bonet reincarnation Shannyn Sossamon looked pretty good in the role, but she showed little personality or spark in the part, and I felt the combination of Sossamon and Ledger failed to demonstrate much chemistry. It didn’t help that some of the other actresses were just as lovely as Sossamon; it never made sense to me that William was so stuck on Jocelyn when blacksmith Kate and Jocelyn’s handmaiden Christiana (Bérénice Bejo) were just as gorgeous.
In the end, I thought that A Knight’s Tale offered a generally enjoyable experience, but it never threatened to become anything more than that. It gently recast the traditional medieval film with modern elements, although it stayed with a very traditional storyline. Most parts of the movie seemed well executed, but other than the thrilling jousting scenes, none of them excelled. Tale was a slightly above-average popcorn flick, but it didn’t make a substantial impact upon me.
Postscript one: those who enjoyed the film will want to stick it out through the completion of the end credits. A minor finishing sequence pops up at that time. Don’t expect cinematic treasure, but it’s a neat reward for anyone who goes that far.
Postscript two: no one ever mentions this during the supplements, but I’d be curious to know if any parts of Tale were inspired by the 1963 Disney flick The Sword In the Stone. In addition to the theme of the commoner who achieves nobility, that film featured a character named Sir Ector and another called Wart. “Wart” sounds a lot like “Wat”. Coincidence or intentional link? Apparently Helgeland’s not telling.