The title, with its promise of medieval adventure, would be enough to entice me. Knights and ladies, stolen identities and fallen heroes, jousting – unless you’re smarting from a bad college experience with Middle English literature, this film would seem a fun escape, a little raucous but not overly trying.
And A Knight’s Tale is some of that. Made in 2001, it predates the moody and heavy-handed historical adventures. The movie doesn’t bury itself in a palette of dark blues and blacks and instead spends most of its time under blazing sunlight, reflecting the optimism of the young squire at the center of the story. Will Thatcher (Heath Ledger) decides to change his fate when his master dies midway through a jousting tournament. Not wanting to face unemployment or a lifetime of service, he competes in the dead man’s stead, wins, and takes up a new identity as Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein. His fellow squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), play along, but the scheme only works with the help of Geoff, last name Chaucer (Paul Bettany), who forges nobility documents that allow Will to enter tournaments.
The movie feels gimmicky at times, though Chaucer the gambling scribe, is an amusing, and sad, idea. In the writer’s most desperate moments, Bettany cuts a pathetic figure. Stripped of his clothes and dignity and cheating his way back to some semblance of respectability, it’s no wonder Chaucer penned a masterpiece that was as bawdy and riotous as it was reflective and admiring.
It’s the film’s many anachronistic elements that are most attention grabbing, however. The movie hurls its story and all its players well into the 21st century, eager to suggest that the 14th century was not so different from our own. The jousting tournaments play out like an adrenaline-fueled weekend of football. Stadiums are packed with superfans who chant ‘70s rock anthems, and the camera obliges by capturing armor catapulting slow-motion through the air and into the crowd like a home run baseball. Star Ledger lends a bit of anarchy to the affair. Looking somewhat shaggy and like he’s just stepped out of a wrestling ring, the actor occasionally flashes a hint of menace, though nothing approaching his Joker. This is 10 Things I Hate About You era Ledger after all.
That’s a good thing because the movie aims closer to the family-friendly crowd, but clocking in at over two hours, it’s easy to lose interest in both the spectacle and Will’s quest. Unlike the sports films it is partly patterned off of, there’s little build up to the main event, making the wins and losses inconsequential. Will’s storyline could use some tightening as well. His main rival (Rufus Sewell) doesn’t seem to pose too great a danger since he’s always coming and going, but the two still compete for the lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). However, she has as much spark as a pile of wet twigs, unlike the fiery female blacksmith that Will befriends. That relationship doesn’t get much mileage nor does the one he has with his father, which doesn’t ruin Will’s determination to better himself, but it does make the journey feel far more formulaic than it should.
Prod: Todd Black, Brian Helgeland, Tim Van Rellim
Dir: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Heath Ledger, Rufus Sewell, Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, Shannyn Sossamon, Paul Bettany, Bérénice Bejo, Laura Fraser, James Purefoy
Time: 132 min
Country: United States