‘Knight’s Tale’: Surely They Joust
As advertised, “A Knight’s Tale” does try to rock you. The problem is, it doesn’t rock you nearly enough. Having come up with a surprisingly serviceable gimmick, writer-director Brian Helgeland is unaccountably parsimonious with it, leaving his film to mark time in ways it’s not really qualified to do.
Helgeland’s idea was to marry a medieval action romance set in 14th century Europe with modern rock music and have the characters accept this as completely natural. So fans at a jousting tournament break into Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” attendees at a fancy ball dance to David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” and crowds in London appreciate Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
This kind of playful, high-spirited anachronism is amusing enough, but there’s not a lot of it, especially for a film that’s 2 hours and 12 minutes long. While the soundtrack-driven “Driven” has more than 30 songs on its credits, “A Knight’s Tale” has 10, not enough for a production that needs more than what amounts to musical window dressing.
For while there’s no reason to doubt “A Knight’s Tale’s” claim that “in medieval times a sport arose, embraced by noble and peasant fans alike,” there turn out to be reasons why jousting hasn’t survived to the 21st century with its popularity intact.
In truth, unless the sight of shattered lances excites you, armored men on horses repeatedly rushing at each other at full speed is not unendingly fascinating. Yet the film’s attempt to vary the pace and provide a noticeable dose of romance as a plot alternative turns out to be more tedious than even the jousting.
One person who loves jousting with a passion is William Thatcher (Heath Ledger). But because of the narrow, unhip way the world was run in the 14th century, a lot of the fun stuff, including jousting, was reserved for the nobility. What a drag.
Then the knight William serves conveniently dies, and he sneaks into a tournament wearing a corpse’s armor and walks away with the prize. As much an anachronism as the music, William has the very modern belief that a man can reinvent himself, change his stars, so to speak. “I’m not going to spend my life being nothing,” he insists, looking more like a pouty surfer than a pile-driving knight. “I’ve waited my whole life for this.”
Fortunately for William and his buddies, they almost immediately run across Geoffrey Chaucer (Peter Bettany). Yes, that Geoffrey Chaucer, already a writer but in his pre- “Canterbury Tales” years and stark-naked because of a weakness for gambling and a knack for losing.
Chaucer’s abilities, it turns out, include forging the patents of nobility that William will need to turn himself into the fictional Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland and be allowed to compete. Bettany brings some needed spirit to the proceedings, and to his role of herald, which Helgeland has amusingly reimagined as someone who does Vegas-style crowd warmup, proclaiming Ulrich to be “the lance that thrilled France, the man who gave them hell at La Rochelle.”
After the addition of a fetching blacksmith named Kate (Laura Fraser), Team Ulrich is doing so well that it’s time to bring in the spurious romantic complications. William spies the fair Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) and is so smitten he follows her into a cathedral on his horse, which even in the 14th century was a major no-no. He considers her “the most beautiful woman in Christendom,” and when he’s cautioned about aiming too high, he gallantly replies, “If there’s another way to aim, I don’t know it.” Truly, love is grand.
Also in love with Jocelyn in his own dark, scheming way is the overly aristocratic Count Adhemar (the ever-villainous Rufus Sewell). A champion jouster who looks in his black armor like a Porsche on horseback, Adhemar has never been unhorsed and, in a touch Martha Stewart would appreciate, favors a lance with a tiny clenched fist on the end. Even in jousting, it’s the little things that count.
While no one wants to say a bad word about romance, the love plot here has several notable problems, starting with the way its very presence feels like a marketing sop to female audiences calculated to turn “A Knight’s Tale” from a guy movie into a date-night favorite.
It might have worked, too, but for the weak performances by the nominal lovebirds. Ledger was more forceful and more effective as Mel Gibson’s son in “The Patriot,” and though it wouldn’t be chivalrous to criticize Sossamon, it’s enough to say she’s a complete beginner whose work here does not exactly whet your appetite for more.
More of a problem is that writer-director Helgeland, whose previous credits include co-writing the “L.A. Confidential” screenplay and writing and directing the ultra-violent “Payback,” has as much feel for romantic material as Barbara Cartland would have had for “The Godfather.” Whenever “A Knight’s Tale” trusts itself to do without its rock music, it’s making a mistake in judgment.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for action violence, some nudity and brief sex-related dialogue. Times guidelines: lots of broken lances.
‘A Knight’s Tale’
Heath Ledger: William
Mark Addy: Roland
Rufus Sewell: Count Adhemar
Paul Bettany: Chaucer
Shannyn Sossamon: Jocelyn
Alan Tudyk: Wat
Laura Fraser: Kate
An Escape Artists/Finestkind production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Brian Helgeland. Producers Todd Black, Tim Van Rellim, Brian Helgeland. Screenplay Brian Helgeland. Cinematographer Rocjard Greatrex. Editor Kevin Stitt. Costumes Caroline Harris. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Tony Burrough. Art director John Hill. Set decorators Dominic Smithers, Jiri Zucek. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
In general release.