Thursday, 17 February 2011

Film Review #21

A Knight's Tale (2001)
Director: Brian Helgeland  Starring: Heath Ledger, Paul Bettany, Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, Shannyn Sossamon, Rufus Sewell, Laura Fraser, James Purefoy

Certificate: PG  Running Time: 138 Minutes

Tagline: "He will rock you"

Times have been lean in RKS-land of late. With so little resources available, I'm afraid visits to the cinema have been even more infrequent than usual, so I shall instead take a look at one of my favourite films and hopefully convert a few new fans in the process! It is, as you may have guessed, A Knight's Tale, featuring a superb ensemble cast headed by the late Heath Ledger. Although he was an immense talent, I was never what you might call a Heath Ledger fan and didn't really know who he was when I first saw this film, but it soon became one of my most watched DVD's, thanks in part to his charismatic performance, and I was very saddened to hear of his premature passing, around three years ago now. He was a versatile actor whose talents saw him portray a number of varied roles. This one, which is the second directorial effort from acclaimed writer, Brian Helgeland, is set in 1370's France and tells the tale of peasant squire, William Thatcher.

A disguised William prepares for his first 'tilt'...
Having been brought up by his single and impoverished father, William (Ledger) was taught that he can achieve anything if he believes in himself. In order to help his son make something of his life, his father sends him to work as an apprentice for a knight, Sir Ector. Fast forward 10-15 years and William, along with fellow squires, Roland (Addy) and Wat (Tudyk), are in France accompanying Ector as he competes in jousting tournaments. Apparently having fallen on harder times, the three peasants anxiously await the climax of the current tournament, in which Ector has an unassailable lead, so they can all finally have something to eat, only to find that he has died just before the final round.

The dastardly Count Adhemar...
For Wat and Roland it's a disaster and further poverty but William sees an opportunity. Stripping Ector of his armour, he quickly convinces his friends to help him ride in his master's place. After the easy victory afforded by Ector's previous lead he convinces the others to prolong the masquerade. Taking on the rather long-winded moniker of Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein from Gelderland, it is around this time they meet Geoffrey Chaucer (Bettany) who provides them with forged 'patents of nobility' enabling 'Sir Ulrich' to compete in tournaments. It is at his first such tournament that William meets Lady Jocelyn (Sossamon), for whom he immediately falls, and also encounters Count Adhemar (Sewell), who has designs on Jocelyn himself and with whom an intense rivalry soon develops. Now William has to win Jocelyn's heart, defeat tournament champion, Adhemar, and all the while keep his humble origins concealed.

Lady Jocelyn wearing a very Middle Ages outfit...
As much as I love A Knight's Tale though, it's not a film without its critics. Most commonly singled-out is Helgeland's deliberate use of anachronisms throughout the film. Nearly all the music and some of the dialogue, for example, is not really befitting the era in which the film is set, being more akin to that of the 1970's that the 1370's. With bands like Thin Lizzy, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, AC/DC, Queen, etc, on the soundtrack though, it's all fine by me! I think it kinda suits the film's style which is very distinctive and atmospheric despite the modern music. The whole movie was filmed in the Czech Republic and all the extras very much look the part, as do the lead cast who all have superb costumes which, aside from some of Jocelyn's outfits, look very authentic, culminating in an outstanding banquet dance sequence which gradually changes from traditional music to rock!

A determined-looking cadre approach the 'lists'...
Leading the cast, as you may have guessed, is Mr Ledger, who plays the part of the dashing, rags-to-riches hero well, and he is accompanied by some fine co-stars. Loyal friends, the humble Roland and volatile Wat, who are with him from the start, arrogant writer, Geoff, whose flamboyant introductions for Sir Ulrich are worth the price of admission alone, Kate the farrier, whose pretty face belies her resourcefulness... the list goes on. Making her first film appearance as the playful Lady Jocelyn is Shannyn Sossamon who was discovered by the films casting director DJ'ing at a party. She has little to do here really besides looking nice but she does a fine job opposite Ledger, as does Rufus Sewell who is suitably caddish as the film's antagonist, Count Adhemar.

Little old Kate doesn't appreciate the joke...
There's lots of other noteworthy characters here too with smaller roles including a couple of great appearances from Edward, the Black Prince of Wales (Purefoy), who competes in the tournaments in disguise. The sets are all very convincing as well. There's nothing that's really that fancy but it all looks authentic enough. Indeed, despite the anachronisms, A Knight's Tale actually has some of its characters and events based in real history. There really was an Ulrich von Liechtenstein, for example, and Prince Edward was a keen jouster. There are also several references to future works written by Chaucer, and the film is even set during a six month period where the real Chaucer's activities were unknown. The subsequent events, as depicted in the film, supposedly inspired some of his future works including his most celebrated book, Canterbury Tales.

It's not all swords and lances...
I can totally understand why some, even most viewers wouldn't like this film as much as I do. It's well made, scripted, acted... everything, but even I know it's not like it's one of the greatest cinematic works of all-time. Something about it just strikes me I suppose. The jousting scenes are all outstanding and feature some pretty brave stuntmen! The lances were scored and had tips of balsa wood, but even so they must've packed a hell of a whack! There's some great banter between the characters, both friends and foes. There's action, comedy, romance, drama, and the girls aren't bad to look at either! Central to it all is Ledger who really does make the film. He's able to say more with a facial expression than many actors can with a hundred words and he does so often. You'll already be cheering William on even before he locks horns with the Count, and his adventures, along with all his friends, make for one of the finest feel-good films I've seen. You'll be jumping out of your seat in celebration along with all the rest of them and I never get bored of it. It's just a shame Heath Ledger isn't around to make any more films. The world will be a poorer place without him.

RKS Score: 9/10


  1. Nice review.

    I remember when this film came out. I wasn't impressed with the trailers, - the "he will rock you" and general in-your-face-ness of it put me off.

    But it actually wasn't bad when I watched it (on DVD), I actually enjoyed it. It is tongue-in-cheek so it kind of works, and as you say the cast was pretty good.

    I think that is why they got away with all the stuff the critics complained about which you mention. In the end, it isn't a historical movie but a light-hearted action flic that happens to be set in a historical period.

    Like recently I've been watching the "Sharpe" series with Sean Bean. They made a really stupid decision with the soundtrack to that one, having an electric guitar provide the theme. It is totally inappropriate to the period it is set in. Whereas A Knight's Tale gets away with it because its more or less just a fun, light-hearted action movie, Sharpe doesn't because it takes itself way too seriously.

  2. Haha, I think you said it better than me! :) You're right though, the music suits the style of the film here, I think. The fact that the film opens with "We Will Rock You" and the guitar solo is being played by the tournament announcers with their long trumpet things sums it up really! :P