A KNIGHT'S TALE
written and directed by Brian Helgeland with Heath Ledger, Mark Addy, Paul Bettany, and Rufus Sewell opens May 11 at Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree, and others
LONG AFTER MAXIMUS, historically speaking, we have William Thatcher, who follows Gladiator's paladin into a very different arena of combat. Jump forward from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages and the stakes aren't life-or-death, tyranny-or-republic as knights tilt at one another with jousting lances. It's all for show (the lances are designed to splinter on impact), and the boisterous crowd loves it. In fact, as low-born William first rides in the stead of his deceased master, the spectators clap in rhythm to Queen's "We Will Rock You"—immediately signaling Brian Helgeland's entertainingly anachronistic tone. (The fans hold tailgate parties outside, but what do tickets cost?) Knight's Tale is about as medieval as high school, with faces just as clean-scrubbed and handsome. It's 90210 transported to the 14th century, with poignant crushes and wardrobe dilemmas to suit.
As William, chiseled Heath Ledger is certainly TV-hunky. Better still, he's cheerful, friendly, and adorable—so unlike dour, moody, paparazzi-slugging Russell Crowe. Although William briefly sports blond dreadlocks and a beard, he soon undergoes a fashion makeover to embody the silly, made-up noble title he assumes to compete on the pro jousting circuit. He becomes a clean-shaven aristocratic pretender, a con man, abetted by fellow vassals including The Full Monty's Mark Addy. Traveling across France, they add Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) to their crew; the future Canterbury Tales scribe soon takes to giving William elaborate, crowd-pleasing introductions ࠬa the WWF (the best thing about the film).
Since it's got only one core idea to offer ("A man can change his stars," says William), then repeats it about ten thousand times, Knight's Tale only works as well as its wrapping—the constant, jokey parallels between jousting and modern sports. Hence, the crowd does the wave; vendors work the stands; spectators vie to catch a flying helmet like a baseball. Funny stuff—the first time. After that, well, it's a long, repetitive season before our hero and snobbish adversary (Dark City's brooding Rufus Sewell) get to face off at London's world championships.
Mainly, so far as kids' movies are concerned, Knight's Tale is notable for its absence of darkness, cynicism, and blood. (Call it Gladiator-lite.) All the believe-in-yourself platitudes stand in refreshing contrast to Scream-style sarcasm; problem is, Scream's a lot more fun to watch. Moreover, the corny sentimentalism here seems as out-of-touch with Knight's intended teen (preteen?) audience as a soundtrack comprised of War, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, David Bowie, Thin Lizzy, and AC/DC. It's nice to think that youth could have some respect for traditional, noncynical movie uplift, but there's no reason to believe that they want to hear golden oldies.
AN OSCAR WINNER for his adaptation of L.A. Confidential, writer/director Brian Helgeland frankly assessed Knight's youth-oriented appeal during a recent visit to Seattle. "Certainly it's a movie that kids are going to like," he explains. "[But] I didn't sit down and say 'How could I write a movie for teenagers?' It became a movie about youth and identity and freedom. And that, to me, is what rock 'n' roll is in its purest state." Hence, he chuckles, the frequent use of "arena rock" in the film's score.
Still, Helgeland acknowledges the contrast between Knight's sweetness and the very different teen sensibility of, say, Tomcats or Freddy Got Fingered. "That's the cynical approach," he notes. "There's very much two Hollywoods in that way—in terms of what kind of movie is being made. What we see so much more of are the result of eight guys in suits sitting around a table saying, 'We gotta get some of these kids movies, because we can make a whole lot of money.'"
Does William's quest to remake himself finally speak to the very malleability of teen identity? "Right. He's become the person that he saw himself being." In that sense, Helgeland adds, jousting really isn't so important to his hero's self-invention: "The idea was always that it was more an exclamation point to his moods."