King Arthur (2004)Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality and some language.
Starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen Dillane, Ray Winstone, Hugh Dancy, Til Schweiger.
LVJeff's Rating: 3/10
Photo ©Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.
Snore to the Tale of Arthur
As the year rolls on, Hollywood continues its affair with demythification -- taking a famous, legendary story and bringing it down to earth in an effort to tell a more realistic tale. At times, the results have been fairly entertaining (Troy), at others they've been confounding (The Alamo). Now comes King Arthur, which commits, perhaps, the most egregious sin -- it's uninteresting.
A good demythification has a purpose -- to find what's at the root of these myths and discover what elements made the legends so compelling. The story uncovered should retain what makes the popular tales so popular; in other words, it's a disservice to the people's need for mythology when revisionism is employed solely for grumpy debunking. However, plain ol' debunking can be fascinating in and of itself, since unmasking an unspectacular historical account can also give us indirect insight into why people felt the need to dress it up.
King Arthur is none of the above. It's a story about a group of warriors employed by the ancient Roman Empire to guard what they own of Britain. These warriors are descended from peoples captured and indentured by the Romans; now they're fast approaching the point where the Romans are willing to abandon the isles and set their servants free -- but only if they accomplish one more dangerous task. These warriors just happen to have the names of Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, and other familiar monikers from the legends of the Knights of the Round Table.
For as much as this unextraordinary event is related to any of the tales of Camelot, Arthur and his warriors might as well have been given the names of the cast of Monty Python. Let's see -- their mission is to rescue a Roman family in imminent danger. The danger comes from the invading Saxons of the North. Also causing trouble is a horde of native barbarians, whose leader is named Merlin (Stephen Dillane). Eventually they rescue Guinevere (Keira Knightley), one of the barbarians who's really good with a bow-and-arrow and in armed combat. Stop me when any of this actually sounds like it relates to the King Arthur legends.
As if this story wasn't commonplace enough, the elements of the movie strongly contribute to its boredom factor. Arthur (Clive Owen) spends the entire movie with a mopey or angry look on his face; actually, almost all the characters do (except one joker of a knight). Really, what fun is it to have Knightley in a movie if she never ever smiles? The scenery is dark, and the good guys whine a lot, until they're forced to fight, which happens only three times -- the introductory battle, the middle set piece (on a frozen lake -- possibly the only engaging scene in the picture) and the mandatory big final battle. The bad guys are obligatory -- the Saxons have no personal beef with the good guys and are evil just because. Their leader (Stellan Skarsgård) is the only character who talks in what seems to be an American accent, his voice breathed out in a lazy drawl. In any case, he's just there -- you can't hate him because he doesn't commit any audience-angering atrocities, and his personality isn't charismatic enough to be memorable. The brooding Arthur and his grouchy friend Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) don't inspire hurrahs either, resulting in a last battle in which I couldn't care less about the outcome.
If a movie's selling point is, as the tagline says, "the untold true story that inspired the legend," then that true story better be as captivating as, if not more captivating than, the legend. If the subject is King Arthur, that's a tall order, and it certainly shouldn't be filled with "generic ancient combat epic." Once that concept was established, I think the filmmakers knew they were in trouble, which is why Knightley gets played up so much. Her Guinevere can stand up with the boys, which is postmodern revisionism to be sure, but it plays counter to the notion that this story was behind the legends. After all, if history had a ferocious woman warrior, why in the world would legends evolving from it play her down to the simpler, more unsavory role of beautiful-figurehead-queen-turned-adulteress?
But since Knightley is the most recognizable name, Guinevere is given the royal treatment here. Of course she isn't turned away like the other townsfolk volunteers when she asks to join the knights on the frozen lake battle, even though, just hours ago, she spent a long time in a cage and suffered from dislocated fingers. Of course, during the climactic fight, for every two shots of random good guys swinging swords, there's one shot of her delivering smackdowns in face paint and skimpy battle gear. So, naturally, Knightley's in the center of the poster for the movie entitled King Arthur. If ever there was a warning sign for an ill-conceived flick, this was it.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 30, 2004