Neil Young’s Film Lounge – King Arthur by Sheila Seacroft

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

KING ARTHUR

a second opinion

by guest reviewer Sheila Seacroft

The makers of this film have taken a bold risk with an old story, and thereby with audience expectations. Casting aside the familiar legends of Arthur and his knights, tales of romance, individual valour, dragons and witches and archetypal struggle, director Antoine Fuqua and writer David Franzoni have gone back to what some scholars think is the root of the legend, a Roman soldier trying to hold on to a civilisation of sorts for a Britain left beached and helpless by the retreat of Roman rule and attacked on all sides by barbarians.

Arthur (Clive Owen) is the noble-minded Christian commander, based on Hadrians Wall, of the crack Sarnatian knights, a troubleshooting cohort formed from men of Sarnatia, a rather puzzling country somewhere in Western Asia where the inhabitants live in yurts but have pale caucasian faces. Among this group are the old familiar names Tristan, Lancelot, Galahad, GawainWe meet them at their last expedition, sorting out the woads, locals who dress mainly in body paint. (Is it a good idea that our first sight of these heroes is hacking down a scantily clad and poorly armed enemy from their well-armoured horses?)

Now, they believe, their debt of servitude to Rome is over, and they may return home. But no, a last special assignment awaits to rescue a Roman family living well north of the wall (unlikely, Id say) and return them to Rome. Loyalty leads them to follow their leader northward, where they discover villainy at the Roman fiefdom, including mistreated serfs and various locals walled up and left to die. Arthurs faith in Rome and the Pope is dashed further when he hears that his hero, Pelagius, a preacher of free will and equality, has been put to death by the Church back in Rome.

A compensation, however, is the discovery of walled-up woad Guinevere (Keira Knightley), and after Arthur un-dislocates her fingers, (dont try this at home), she is his. Discovering overnight not just glowing health and the use of her fingers, but a spanking new goddess-Diana style off-the-shoulder dress (ooh, shell catch her death) with elegant matching bow, she proves a fearless warrior maid, and becomes an integral part of the fighting force. For realisation dawns on Arthur, after a talk with Merlin, high priest of the guerilla woads, that the Saxons, a villainous crew with savage haircuts who sensibly dress bulkily in furs and leathers, are the real enemy, and the future of the island lies in woads and good Romans (as opposed to those with Italian accents) joining together to defeat them.

As they move unfeasibly northward and the weather takes a turn for the worse, there are lots of long battles, one spectacularly on a frozen lake, shot partly from beneath the ice, but unfortunately not much else. This viewer at least felt strangely unconcerned about the outcomes, or any of the protagonists. The knights are pretty characterless and interchangeable, apart from Ray Winstones Bors, who is a welcome sight at first but whose bluff cockney/Sarnatian humour and affection for his eleven little b-a-a-stards soon lives up to his name. Clive Owen does his best with Arthur.

Its not easy to act a decent man, especially when you have to breathe life into lines like Romes anticipated withdrawal from Britain has only increased their daring! Ioan Gruffudd has little to go at as Lancelot. Stellan Skarsgard and Til Schweiger as Saxon chief and son glower a lot. Keira Knightley is feisty and knows how to wield a variety of weapons. Shes also the poshest person on screen, contrasting with her fellow woads, who are strangely more Mummerset than Northumberland. And while were on the subject, WHY Northumberland, when all the legendary sites are in the celtic heartlands of the west, Cornwall and Wales and Brittany?

While applauding the nerve of this different take on a legend that already has its fair share of screen versions, its difficult to know who will enjoy it Arthurian fans will miss the adventure and drama of the famous stories and be frustrated at the lack of characterisation of their heroes. The generation used to Lord of the Rings fantasy will find the proceedings dour. This may be the basic homespun on which the legends were embroidered, but oh for a bit of fancy stitchwork. The film ends with one of those embarrassing ensemble pieces where the victorious goodies get together and smile too much – cf Ewok party at end of Return of the Jedi and it looks like Arthur & co have got Britain sorted. Sorry, lads that’s not the last youll see of the Saxons, not to mention Angles, Jutes, Vikings

Sheila Seacroft

July, 2004