A Knight's Tale
review by Elias Savada, 11 May 2001

The serf's up in Heath Ledger's would-be-princely charming tale of the medieval jousting circuit, a fledgling European precursor to the WWF's next great debacle, the XJL. Barbing at knights in armor with long wooden toothpicks, A Knight's Tale may be a smidgen (the medieval equivalent of thirty minutes) too long, but it has an oversized heart and a roguish camaraderie that should appeal to any non-discriminating viewer, helped, no doubt, by several pre-production weeks of hard drinking "rehearsals." Heath Ledger (Mel Gibson's brave son in The Patriot) moves further up the celebrity teen-o-meter as he backsteps further in time for this historical romantic comedy. As William Thatcher he is a rumpled blond peasant squire to Sir Ector (Nick Brimble), an over-the-hill competitor now unfortunately deceased ("his spirit is gone, but his stench remains" signals the throw-away lines that splinter the film). The impetuous lad's survival instinct kicks him. He strips down and armors up, setting about to become a faux noble lance-a-lot. His cohorts in deception (aware that if they succeed, there's a lot of money to spread around) are Roland (The Full Monty's Mark Addy), a sturdy Friar Tuck type, and the impulsive, red-headed bumpkin Wat, filled by Alan Tudyk, who carved a similar comic notch into his role as Gerhardt, the comic German cocaine addict in 28 Days.

The best lines arrive from the mouth of the fourteenth century's best selling author Geoffrey Chaucer, oddly described as 5'-11" at the film's website, but embodied by the towering 6'-3" frame of Paul Bettany, a London born and classically trained actor now filming his first American feature, Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, opposite Russell Crowe. As seen here (often without his clothes), he's a struggling writer and compulsive gambler, yet astute Barnumesque ballyhoo artist/press agent. He shines when embellishing in Vince McMahon fashion the make believe legerdemain of William's royal alter ego, Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland. "Geoff" loves spellbinding the boisterous crowds (two deleted flamboyant scenes will hopefully be found on the DVD version) with pretentious bravado. "Thank you," he responds to the applause. "I'll be here all week."

On the opposite side of the gender is Shannyn Sossamon as Jocelyn, the beautiful noblewoman with wildly out of date (for the 1300s) feminist leanings. The barely believable romance between her and Ulrich/William is too damn cute, and she's more of a fashion statement than a romantic icon, with a ton of weird hair, hat, and costume days (Move over. Cher!). I was more taken by the pluck of Kate (Laura Fraser), a sultry blacksmith's widow oddly attached to the men. She offers up one of the more amusing product placements in recent memory, with a double Nike emblem on a battle suit she hammers together for the young jouster.

Rufus Sewell sneers his way about the screen as Count Adhemar, a standard villain's role. He pillages, he pouts, he connives, he jousts dirty, and he gets his just desserts.

Producer-director-writer Brian Helgeland has an affinity for head bashing (as screenwriter for L.A. Confidential and director of Payback), but instead of a fist or a gun, the damage here comes at the end of a long stick. Helgeland certainly lightens the dramatic load with A Knight's Tale, even if he uses a hand-held battering ram to make his point. In a bit of anachronistic befuddlery (and with some amusing similarities to Shrek and Moulin Rouge), the filmmaker interweaves the rock score within the 600+year-old time frame. Hence the first jousting match has the peasants energetically singing and swinging to Queen's We Will Rock You. Such exuberant interplay of contemporary/medieval culture doesn't work as well with the other cross-epochal scenes. Bachman Turner Overdrive's Takin' Care of Business overlays a deep-in-the woods secret training exercise for the aspiring champion and his band of merry men. David Bowie's Golden Years sparks the young lover's first anxiety-filled waltz steps at a victory ball before the entire dance floor starts agitating to Stuart Hopps energetic choreography. Prolific composer Carter Burwell (Gods and Monsters, Fargo, Being John Malkovich) does a top-notch effort in blending the musical styles of two distinct centuries, but it's the top ten tunes that will sell the soundtrack.

The rag-tag team follows the jousting circuit before the extreme championship climax in London. After offering a perspective flashback that explains how the cards were unfortunately stacked against the young William, the script offers a paternal reunion and tear-stacked memories of a fearful son tritely instructed to "just follow your feet." Aside from such thinly baked writing and the false romantic moments, the film's action-packed twenty-seven matches are generally fleet of foot and fast of pace, even if it easily could have been trimmed a half-dozen nerve-wracking contests.

A Knight's Tale won't slay the Mummy, but it's a noble seller of popcorn. Joust on, brave warrior dude!


Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' interview with Heath Ledger or Elias Savada's interview with Paul Bettany.

Written and
Directed by:

Brian Helgeland

Starring:
Heath Ledger
Mark Addy
Rufus Sewell
Paul Bettany
Shannyn Sossamon
Alan Tudyk
Laura Fraser
Christopher Cazenove
Berenice Bejo
James Purefoy

Rated:
PG13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13

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