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a knight's tale

review by rob gonsalves

Brian Helgeland

Todd Black
Brian Helgeland
Tim Van Rellim

Richard Greatrex

Carter Burwell

Kevin Stitt


Heath Ledger (William Thatcher)
Rufus Sewell
(Count Adhemar)
Shannyn Sossamon
Paul Bettany
(Geoffrey Chaucer)
Laura Fraser
Mark Addy
Alan Tudyk

mpaa rating: PG-13
running time: 132m
u.s. release: May 11, 2001
video availability: VHS - DVD
official website

other brian helgeland films
reviewed on this website:

- the order
- payback

Surprise, surprise: A Knight's Tale, after weeks of obnoxious hype (if you weren't sick of "We Will Rock You" before, you probably are now), turns out to be not bad and sometimes even pretty damn good -- the second goofily thirst-quenching no-brainer out of the box this summer, after The Mummy Returns. Can this actually mean the upcoming hot season won't suck as badly as last summer? After all, by this time last year, Battlefield Earth and Gladiator had already come out.

Not that A Knight's Tale will bear much comparison to The Canterbury Tales or even Excalibur. Writer-director Brian Helgeland, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential and directed 1999's Payback, has made a cheerful beer-and-pizza movie that maybe deserves to rank alongside George Romero's Knightriders as well as some of the sword-and-sorcery movies of the '80s (Conan the Barbarian, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beastmaster) whose chief charm was that they didn't even pretend to be "accurate." A Knight's Tale is unabashedly contemporary in tone and spirit, and why the hell not? It's not as if Hollywood has never done that before. If you want the real deal, go read Chaucer in the original Middle English (I have; he makes Eminem look like Mr. Rogers).

The latest anointed hunk, Heath Ledger, acquits himself competently enough as William Thatcher, a peasant's son who works as a squire for an over-the-hill knight (Helgeland's opening text actually calls him "over-the-hill," a fair indication of what kind of movie this is; it also refers to jousting "fans"). When the knight expires, William dons his armor and, with the help of fellow groundlings Roland (Mark Addy, making the same immediate tubby-regular-guy connection with the audience that he made in The Full Monty) and Wat (Alan Tudyk, going for Johnny Rotten in look and attitude), passes himself off as "Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland" despite having no particular Germanic accent. Securing fake "patents of nobility" from an on-his-uppers Chaucer himself (the scene-stealing Paul Bettany, who bears more than a little resemblance to Helgeland), William is ready to joust.

Ah, yes, the jousting. Playing to medieval-era arena crowds (all they need is a rainbow-head John 3:16 guy in the stands), the jousting competitions hinge on breaking your lance against another guy's armor or knocking him off his horse. The jousts become funny in their very repetition (smash! back for another pass! smash!) and phallic nature (the guy with the truest stick wins). The horses thundering along, the knights with their lances poised -- great stuff, say I; unless you're the sort who makes it out to a renaissance faire every year, you don't see this very often, and the low-tech spectacle of men bashing each other with big poles is absurdly gratifying.

William's main competition on the field is the jerky Rufus Sewell, whose imperious countenance has doomed him to play treacherous wankers forevermore. William's competition off the field is his own heart, which wants to hand itself to the shiny lady-in-waiting Jocelyn. As played by Shannyn Sossamon, Jocelyn mainly beams or pouts like a medieval Denise Richards; I would've rather seen William go for his trusty blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser), who's meant to be a tomboy, though the make-up and wardrobe departments amusingly forget to make her tomboyish.

There's a good deal of goofing around (Helgeland is deft at warming us to the four buddies via William Goldman-esque badinage and snarky asides), as well as a needless subplot involving William's dad, which comes with its own laborious flashbacks; I'm convinced Helgeland could've had a fast, streamlined drive-in movie had he deleted the Dad material, which adds little except minutes. Still, A Knight's Tale is jolly enough armor-clanging, and, yes, the rock songs on the soundtrack do enhance the fun. The use of "We Will Rock You" at the beginning suggests that, for all its mainstream exertions, A Knight's Tale is actually something of an experimental melding of old and new. By the time Helgeland gets to a dance sequence set to David Bowie's "Golden Years," you've either accepted the musical choices or left the building in disgust. I was still there, and happy.

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