Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffudd, Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Hugh Dancy, Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson, Keira Knightley, Stephen Dillane, Stellan Skarsgård
PG-13 (For intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality and some language)
Britain has very few legends, none more memorable than that of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. The latest feature about the fabled King Arthur is less a recount of the stories everyone has heard and more of an attempt to debunk the mystery and put a realistic spin on the tale.
Clive Owen (Croupier ) stars as the wizened Arthur, a Roman officer who has been charged with leading a group of Sarmatian horsemen in defending the Roman Empire’s claim to the land of England.
Having stretched themselves too thin, the Romans have decided to abandon their claim as the Saxons invade from the north. On the day Arthur’s knights are to receive their freed, the church sends them on one final mission, one likely to result in their deaths. By his side, Arthur has the famed Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy) and others whose names are not easily known to regular audiences.
David Franzoni has crafted a believable version of the Arthurian legend. The situations and environments are rich and detailed and some of the characterization is complex. Take for example Arthur, who has served Rome faithfully for years in hope of returning home to be with his famed father whose radical views are aggravating the church.
Even in the face of certain punishment, the noble Arthur refuses to treat the natives any differently than he does the Romans, who are portrayed as vain, expansionistic villains intent on destroying the land and too cowardly to defend it. Owen, to that end, plays Arthur better than any version of this story I’ve seen. His Arthur never backs down and serves as a brilliant reminder of the dignified personage that legend was, in this retelling, based upon.
Keira Knightley who has given uneven performances in the past fits perfectly in the skin of the Woad Guinevere. Sure, her character becomes too powerful and cognizant to quickly for belief, but that’s a fault of the screenwriter, not of Knightley. Likewise, Gruffudd as Lancelot and Edgerton as Gawain are modestly complex characters and each give above average performance. The rest of the characters seem less three dimensional and more like background images and support characters whose purpose is only to further the story, not to enrich it.
Where King Arthur falls flat is in its laborious battle sequences. They are uninspired, lengthy and filled with so much clich that it distracts from the rest of the film. Only one sequence, where the knights fend off the advancing Saxon army across a large, ice-covered lake, adds any inspiration or originality. The rest is cookie cutter filmmaking that is largely to blame for the film’s failures.
While Franzoni can be lauded for the craft of retelling a tale in such an inventive way, he can be chastised for his failure to develop believable back story, convincing dialogue or spectacular battle scenes. In the first few scenes of the film, we see the Romans collecting the Sarmatian knights to serve the empire for 15 years and the audience is convinced they’re about to see a Braveheart clone. With the pathetic huzzah’s the families of these young boys give as they are taken from them, we fear that this period war film will be as unoriginal as all the others.
Director Antoine Fuqua also has a great deal to be blamed for. His sweeping, grandiose closing battle sequence yields great frustration forcing the audience to believe they’ve seen it all before. Likewise, the pathetic one-dimensional performances that open, close and are interspersed throughout the film are a reminder that had the likes of Owen and Knightley not been present, the film would have been an abysmal failure.
King Arthur has its strengths and its weaknesses. The strengths are in its original concept and decent lead performances. Its weaknesses are in its meager dialogue, pedantic battles and transparent self righteousness. Certainly to please some while disappointing others, this film is neither a banner war film nor an incoherent mess.
August 19, 2004