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A Knight's Tale   C

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Heath Ledger, Rufus Sewell, Shannyn Sossamon, Paul Bettany, Laura Fraser, Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, Berenice Bejo.

Review by Rob Vaux

A Knight's Tale isn't what you'd expect from the screenwriter who brought you such hard-boiled fare as Payback and L.A. Confidential. Brian Helgeland has traded in his gritty film noir spurs in exchange for a piece of Middle English bubblegum, a transcendentally goofy romp that plays far too fast and loose for its own good. A Knight's Tale is the sort of film that junior high school students will adore... and then rent 10 years from now and wonder what they were thinking.

If nothing else, Helgeland and company can't be faulted for taking themselves too seriously. The script follows a young squire named William Thatcher (Aussie hunk du jour Heath Ledger), who dreams of becoming a knight but cannot compete because of his common birth. He helps his master on the jousting circuit, sort of the medieval version of NASCAR where knights charge full tilt at each other before howling mobs. Helgeland's conceit is to marry the archaic sport with postmodern sensibilities. The crowds at the tournament sing along to Queen songs and heralds finish their announcements with "Thank you; I'll be here all week." It's cute enough, and it helps cover up the repetitive nature of jousting (charge guy on horse, knock guy off horse, repeat), but it never melds together as smoothly as it should.

Fortune strikes young William when his master dies right before a big tournament. With the help of his two fellow squires (Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk), he takes the knight's place, using the helmet to disguise his identity. The ruse works and they win the tournament, allowing William's dreams to take flight. With the help of wandering scribe Geoffrey Chaucer (yes, that Geoffrey Chaucer, amusingly played by Paul Bettany), he forges "patents" denoting noble birth and becomes Sir Ulrich of Gelderland -- able to compete in any tournament he wishes, cross swords with snooty bad guy Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), and woo his allotted damsel, Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon).

Though loaded with clichés about underdogs and heroic courage, A Knight's Tale keeps its tongue firmly in cheek at all times. Helgeland writes some nice, sparring, dialogue and manages to make the jousts as exciting a spectacle as he can. Smiles abound on all the cast members and it's difficult to keep from chuckling at it all. But the film never quite manages to find its voice. The disparate elements don't clash the way they might, but they don't always work well together, either. At times, A Knight's Tale takes its material very seriously. Other points, it's all a lark. The dialogue shifts from classic-speak to modern slang with frightening regularity, and the entire affair can't seem to settle on any set tone.

Historical purists, be warned: this film will tear open your hot box and start mashing buttons like a deranged chimp. The jousting audiences act like crowds at a football game, while Thatcher's followers have a very un-medieval swagger to them. A Knight's Tale often tries to make the same points about modern entertainment as Gladiator, but with a lot less style and subtlety. Much has been made of the soundtrack, featuring '70s-era arena rock married to the medieval setting. Defenders say that the incongruity of such a pairing doesn't matter, that it's all just a question of having fun. Certainly A Knight's Tale embraces the pseudo-camp potential of 14th century dancers boogying down to David Bowie, but it never does anything different with such elements. The training scenes are alarmingly routine, the jousts follow the standard Rocky-style sports clichés, and the song selections -- while uncommon for material like this -- are fairly trite. Surely they could come up with something better to accompany William's parade into London than "The Boys Are Back in Town."

The cast occupies a similarly mixed position. Sewell has fun with his one-note villain, and Thatcher's followers are all a blast. The leads fare less well, however; Ledger is decent enough, but lacks any memorable qualities, while Sossamon is just another fashion model out of her league (as leading ladies go, I would have much preferred Laura Fraser, who plays Thatcher's feisty Irish blacksmith, Kate). It's hard to generate excitement around these two, for all that A Knight's Tale tries. This is a good film to get drunk to, a whispery bit of fluff that never offends so long as you don't think too hard. But its steps are never as sure as it likes to think, and in the end, it never conjures the magic it so strongly believes in. It's too bad. Geoffrey Chaucer and Freddie Mercury would've made a hell of a nightclub act.

Review published 05.14.2001.

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