It's safe to say there will be two camps of thought when it comes to dissecting "A Knight's Tale" (IMDb listing). Those who can accept it and abide by its puzzling structure will find an enchanting, romantic fable with a sharp twist of irreverence. Those who dislike it will be turned off by this film's unappealing construction and farfetched whimsy. I fall into the latter category.
"A Knight's Tale" is attempting to ruffle the feathers of middle-age purists with some rock music and 2001 terminology stuffed into an old-fashioned adventure, yet one cannot help but see a desperation in the filmmaking and coldness of style. It will polarize audiences like some of the most exciting cinema does, but I cannot recommend a trip out to the theater to see it.
William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) is a peasant living in the 1400s looking to change his luck. Through a little fraud and help from his friends ("The Full Monty's" Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, and Paul Bettany), William assumes the role of fictional royalty and begins to participate in the jousting games of the English countryside. Finding success and love with a princess (a bland Berenice Bejo), William's plans for a clean sweep of the tournaments is thwarted by the evil Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), who despises the newcomer and sets out to reveal his true heritage and reclaim his jousting glory.
Written, produced, and directed by Brian Helgeland, "A Knight's Tale" has the feeling to it that Helgeland is still smarting over his removal from the "Payback" directing chair by Mel Gibson three years ago. With that movie, Gibson eventually called the shots and reedited the finished version. With "A Knight's Tale," Helgeland has a little more juice on his side and seems hell-bent on challenging anyone to second guess what he is doing with this story. Whether it be to separate his film from the summer movie pack or to razz the conventions of pictures set in this time period, Helgeland has made some bold content choices with "A Knight's Tale." For good or for (mostly) bad, it at least tries to give a unique face to the movie.
The film opens with a roaring festival crowd pounding their fists in time to Queen's "We Will Rock You" with the host of the ceremonies lip-synching to a song that would make its world debut 500 years later. The young William and his love interest dance at a banquet to the tune of David Bowie's "Golden Years." Other songs such as "Taking Care of Business," "The Boys are Back in Town," and AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" make appearances in the jousting scenes. Set in England, this medieval adventure has the cast reciting lines like "It's called a staff, helloooo!" and other unbearable modern retorts that litter the screenplay like land mines. These examples are only some of the modern touches to the medieval story that Helgeland has added. Trying to mix in a "Romeo + Juliet" twist so the youth can enjoy this film as well, Helgeland's bitter, functionally misguided attempts at irreverence are depressing to watch. It would be easy to classify this film as "fun," but it simply isn't. "A Knight's Tale" suspiciously insinuates it was a film that Helgeland did not want to make, then decided to mix it up just to interest himself. The reek of boredom is all over this baby.
If after reading that last paragraph you are wondering if "A Knight's Tale" is a comedy, all I have to say is I wonder that as well. Often reaching "Airplane!"-like moments of absurdity, "A Knight's Tale" also strongly adheres to the conventions of this type of fable. It makes for a literal smorgasbord of mismatched tones and stultifying drama. In the end, I found it hard to pinpoint what was meant to be a joke and what was meant to be serious. It's not good for any film to leave the audience in the dark like that.
And in case you wanted to know, the film does have the balls to work in a Nike plug along the way.
In his first starring role, Heath Ledger moves forward in a big way with a clear, winning performance as the fighting William. Coming off his success in "The Patriot," Ledger finally has a film to call his own, and his acting chops appear to be blossoming with every new role. Especially convincing are William's scenes with his long lost father. They are the only moments that escape Helgeland's lead touch, and they provide honesty to a synthetic movie. They also show a tender side to the macho Ledger that I hope to see more of in the future. The rest of the cast is your typical collection of unfunny personalities and minor characters, yet the last curiosity of the film is Rufus Sewell's performance as the villain. In a role that would require an extra dimension to be even considered "one-dimensional," Sewell is wasted in a mustache-twirling performance that will hang in the lamest villain hall of fame.
Before taking in "A Knight's Tale," I find it best to make it absolutely clear what you are about to get yourself into. This isn't a romantic adventure of a peasant rising to fame and glory. It's more of a cutesy lampoon of classic costume dramas made by people who never understood that they didn't have to make this film.
Filmfodder Grade: D+