After watching "A Knight's Tale" the first time, I scanned my notes and
saw a laundry list of flaws. The film is sloppy, self-indulgent and
about 20 minutes too long. The story is, to put it kindly, overly
familiar. And jousting, no matter how cleverly shot, is one dull damned
sport. But regardless of all its failings, I liked the movie. The
central characters were endearing and I loved the camaraderie between
them. Last weekend, I attended another advance screening of the film
and, to my surprise, enjoyed it even more the second time around. "A
Knight's Tale" is a mess, but it's my kind of mess.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar for the "L.A.
Confidential" screenplay, takes the story of a young man pretending to
be a knight and plays fast and loose with the particulars. Although it
is set in the 14th century, the characters talk like 21st century folks.
The Nike logo turns up on a suit of armor. A princess wears a variety of
attractive, but bizarre, outfits that do not fit the time period,
including one number that looks like something Audrey Hepburn wore in
"Breakfast at Tiffany's." As if all that wasn't enough, the orchestral
score is spiced with a number of classic rock songs, from Queen's "We
Will Rock You" to War's "Low Rider." Purists are already howling about
the movie, of course, but who cares? What Helgeland does here is fun.
A side note: One critic accuses the filmmaker of using the rock
chestnuts to "woo the youth market." Pardon me, but does this guy really
think that kids who listen to current pop music are going to embrace a
production because its soundtrack includes "Taking Care of Business" and
"The Boys are Back in Town?" Give me a break. The paying audience at the
sneak I attended Saturday were mostly couples ranging from adult to late
The frills in "A Knight's Tale" may be from left field, but the story is
strictly (in fact, overly) traditional. William (Heath Ledger from "The
Patriot") is squire to Sir Ector, a jousting legend who dies at the
beginning of the film. Desperate for money, the young man convinces
fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) to assist him as
he furtively dons the knight's armor to compete in his place. The facade
is successful and William decides to work towards the world
championships, despite the fact that peasants are not allowed to
Luckily, the boys run into the one and only Geoff Chaucer (Paul Bettany)
staggering naked down the dirt path. Years away from his Canterbury
days, the unemployed writer and chronic gambler joins them and forges a
fine set of identification papers. William becomes Sir Ulrich von
Lichtenstein of Gelderland, jouster extraordinaire, with Chaucer
providing florid intro speeches that would make a WWF wrestler tear up
with joy. A fiery blacksmith named Kate (Laura Fraser) soon joins the
gang as they head from stadium to stadium, with rapturous crowds
chanting Ulrich's name.
William is enraptured as well, by the beautiful, hauty Jocelyn (Shannyn
Sossamon). While he tries to win the heart of the fair maiden, an enemy
glowers from the sidelines. Sir Adhemar (Rufus Sewell from "Dark City")
detests the young upstart and makes clear his intentions to retain his
jousting title and to snatch Jocelyn while he is at it.
Helgeland brought his cast together in Prague a month before shooting
began to practice jousting and get to know each other. The actors spent
their days rehearsing and their nights drinking. By the end of their
prep time they were thick as thieves and the results show up onscreen.
The relaxed bond between the actors/characters makes the film work, even
when the dialogue is weak. Mark Addy ("The Full Monty") and Alan Tudyk
make a particularly likable team, with Addy bouncing caustic one-liners
off Tudyk's chronic blustering. Paul Bettany is an absolute hoot as
Chaucer, with Laura Fraser's down to earth performance anchoring the
The best segment in the film shows off the talents of the three lead
players. A formal dance begins with harpsichord music and turns into a
joyous contemporary romp set to David Bowie's "Golden Years." Heath
Ledger is dashing and charismatic, with his unforced masculinity filling
the screen. Newcomer Shannyn Sossamon projects erotic elegance as she
puts her dance training to good use. The two serve as a delightful
center to a magical scene. While they strut their stuff, Rufus Sewell
does some remarkably subtle acting. Watch his face as he makes the
transitions from arrogance to anger to confusion to sadness to defeat,
all without a single word.
The playful, frothy moments of "A Knight's Tale" shine, while the latter
part of the film suffers from an attack of mawkishness, finally turning
into a medieval "Rocky." Brian Helgeland needs more discipline as a
director. At two hours and eight minutes, his movie screams for editing.
I'd have cut some of the jousting scenes, which are numbingly
repetitive. I also would have rewritten the entire third act and
deep-sixed the pathos. But the bottom line is that Helgeland's
incongruous flourishes and top-notch ensemble cast save the film from
its many, many problem areas.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott