A Knight’s Tale



USA 2001
director / script : Brian Helgeland
producers include : Helgeland
cinematography : Richard Greatrex
editing : Kevin Stitt
music : Carter Burwell
lead actors : Heath Ledger, Paul Bettany, Rufus Sewell, Mark Addy
132 minutes

An endearingly shaggy hybrid of Gladiator and Shakespeare In Love, A Knight’s Tale doesn’t take itself at all seriously and ends up a much more entertaining movie than either of its high-falutin’, Oscar-laden predecessors. Brian Helgeland, best known for writing the high-falutin’, Oscar-laden L A Confidential, aims cheerfully low this time, but his his target squarely enough – this is, at heart, old-fashioned, Saturday-morning-serial fare, but with a sharp post-modern edge to the jokes.

The main poster for Knight’s Tale is unusual, in that it shows only the broad, blandly handsome face of its star, Heath Ledger. After eyecatching turns in Ten Things I Hate About You and The Patriot, Ledger is being blatantly groomed for the big time – in Josie and the Pussycats,subliminal messages are hidden in pop tunes to control the minds of gullible teen consumers, and one of the hidden diktats proclaims ‘Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon!’

Ledger shoulders the thankless plot-carrying here with dour efficiency as William Thatcher, lowly-born peasant who dreams of glory on the jousting field. The sport is restricted to noble knights, but William, passing himself off as ‘Count Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland,’ rapidly achieves superstar status, boosted by the rabble-rousing skills of a certain Geoffrey Chaucer (Bettany), a 14th century version of lgendary boxing MC Michael Buffer. ‘Ulrich’ soon catches the eye of delectable noblewoman Jocelyn (Shanynn Sossamon) – as does his bitterest rival on the tournament circuit, arrogant Count Adhemar (Sewell), setting up a climax in which the pair duke it out for both the jousting title and the maiden’s hand.

A Knight’s Tale is at least 20 minutes too long – there’s too much of the romantic stuff, and, more damagingly, too much bloody jousting. But Helgeland has one big trump card and wisely allows the terrific Bettany to steals the show as the larger-than-life Chaucer – he gets the script’s best lines, and sinks his teeth into every single one. Chillingly convincing as the psychotic anti-hero of Gangster No.1, Bettany doesn’t seem capable of delivering an ordinary performance, and here he injects a welcome note of class into what could otherwise have been a knuckleheaded action romp.

It’s a generally strong supporting cast, easily compensating for Ledger and Sossamon’s relative colourlessness: Laura Fraser gets a rare chance to use her Scottish accent as the blacksmith who crafts William’s light-weight, high-performance armour – complete with Nike swooshes – while James Purefoy, looking a young Oliver Tobias, shows enough charisma as the Black Prince to support his claims on the 007 crown.

Not that Knight’s Tale goes into much detail about the Black Prince, or any of the historical background of the period. Helgeland’s happier dabbling in creative anachronisms, packing the soundtrack with pounding modern rock anthems, and most of the time he pulls it off – it’s hard to dislike the bracing audacity of gags like having the medieval crowds erupting into a Mexican wave. But using David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ during a ball scene is a step too far – an awful moment you fear the lords and ladies are going to start breakdancing.

For the short version of this review click here

20th June, 2001

by Neil Young
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