Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 20, 2018)
For whatever reason, films set in medieval times just don’t seem to do a lot of business. From Excalibur to Dragonslayer and with many stops in between, movies tried a mix of approaches toward the material, but the box office receipts remain modest at best.
Recently, 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword fizzled. Has there ever been a genuine hit that worked with that era? Probably, but I can’t think of one off of the top of my head, and some modest research turned up no exceptions to my rule.
In 2001, we got yet another attempt to plumb the period, and this one looked like it had a shot. A Knight’s Tale starred then-rising heartthrob Heath Ledger and took a gleefully anachronistic tone that looked like it might connect modern audiences to ye olden days.
However, the results weren’t all that positive. It grabbed a $56 million gross, which seemed pretty disappointing for a big summer flick.
A Knight’s Tale follows the story of William Thatcher (Ledger), squire to a knight named Sir Ector. At the film’s start, Ector buys the farm after a jousting match.
Since he almost achieved victory - which would’ve meant a nice payday for William and his cohorts Wat (Alan Tudyk) and Roland (Mark Addy) - William pretends to be Ector to finish the contest. He does so, they get their loot, and that’s that, right?
Wrong. William takes this success as a sign and decides to fake nobility so he can enter these sorts of tournaments on his own.
Neither Wat nor Roland seem enthused about this, but they agree to give it a shot, and a chance meeting with a down-on-his-luck - and naked - Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) offers possible assistance.
Chaucer can falsify the necessary documentation of William’s heritage. Rechristened Sir Auric von Lichtenstein of Gelderland, William quickly hits the field and becomes a success.
Along the way, matters complicate, as William develops both a love interest and an archenemy. In the former capacity we find Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), a lovely but elusive young woman, and in the latter category stands Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), a nasty dude who accurately sees William/Auric as a challenge to his jousting hegemony. In addition to the romance, all of this leads toward an expected climactic battle between William and Adhemar.
I won’t divulge all the details about what occurs, but let’s just say that A Knight’s Tale holds few surprises. However, I don’t really regard that as a flaw, as the film’s essentially just another underdog against the odds story, sort of like Rocky with staffs and horses.
Most movies feature pretty predictable plots, so I think it’s much more important to see what the director does with the material. As such, you’ll find few surprises during Tale, though director Brian Helgeland leavens the activity with an anachronistic tone.
The filmmaker makes no attempt to create an authentic rendition of the era, and this attitude comes through clearly during the first jousting scene, where fans sing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” while air horns bleat in the background. Helgeland follows this with quite a few other attempts to meld eras.
This ultimately seems like little more than an attempt to be different for the sake of being different. At its heart, Tale brings a very traditional story, and it progresses in an unexceptional manner.
It feels as though Helgeland introduces the anachronistic elements simply to make the movie stand out in some way. That’s fine, I suppose, but those bits add nothing to the film, and they appear gratuitous.
I don’t think the rock music and other nods to modern society really harm the flick, but they don’t contribute to it either. Helgeland lacks the skill and style to pull them off fully, so they seem tacked on to a degree.
Really, very little about Tale makes it stand out, though the jousting scenes feel surprisingly vivid and exciting. Jousting always seemed like a dull sport, as all we see are a couple of guys who try to knock each other off their horses. Hey, at least the videogame Joust put the participants on ostriches to enliven the proceedings!
However, Helgeland contributes a great deal of flair and impact to the events. He brings home the intense violence of the games and makes them appear much more brutal and rough than usual. As such, these scenes provide some of the movie’s best elements, and they allow the film’s ending to become truly climactic.
Otherwise, Tale seem like a pretty ordinary flick. Ledger seems vaguely likable and engaging as William, but he fails to provide a real star presence or magnetism.
Most of the supporting cast offer able work, though none really stand out from the crowd. Sidekicks Wat, Roland and Chaucer have their own defining characteristics, but the movie never fleshes them out much, so they all feel ill-defined as a whole.
As for Jocelyn, Lisa Bonet-clone Shannyn Sossamon looks pretty good in the role, but she shows little personality or spark, and the combination of Sossamon and Ledger fails to demonstrate much chemistry. It doesn’t help that some of the other actresses look just as lovely as Sossamon. It never makes sense to me that William gets so stuck on Jocelyn when blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser) and handmaiden Christiana (Bérénice Bejo) appear just as gorgeous.
In the end, A Knight’s Tale offers a generally enjoyable experience, but it never threatens to become anything more than that. It gently recasts the traditional medieval film with modern elements, although it stays with a traditional storyline.
Most parts of the movie seem well executed, but other than the thrilling jousting scenes, none of them excel. Tale brings a slightly above-average popcorn flick, but it doesn’t make a substantial impact upon me.
Postscript one: those who enjoyed the film will want to stick it out through the completion of the end credits. A minor finishing sequence pops up at that time. Don’t expect cinematic treasure, but it’s a neat reward for anyone who goes that far.
Tale seems inspired by the 1963 Disney flick The Sword In the Stone. In addition to the theme of the commoner who achieves nobility, that film featured a character named Sir Ector and another called Wart.
“Wart” sounds a lot like “Wat”. Coincidence or intentional link?
Note that this disc presents an Extended Cut of A Knight’s Tale. It runs about 12 minutes longer than the original theatrical cut. Mostly the EC expands the supporting characters and situations, as we learn a little more about them.
Does this make it a better movie? I don’t think so, and if anything, it may slow the film too much. Tale was already long for this sort of flick, so the addition of another 12 minutes weighs it down even more.
I like that we learn a little extra about the secondary roles but can’t say that this information really adds depth to them or to the story. The footage got cut out for a reason and probably should have stayed on the editing room floor.
Note that the Blu-ray includes only the Extended Cut. As of March 2018, the theatrical version remains unreleased on Blu-ray.