"A Knight's Tale" with Heath Ledger, Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, Rufus Sewell, Shannyn Sossamon. Directed and written by Brian Helgeland. Rated: PG-13. In Missoula (Carmike 10). TWO AND ONE-HALF STARS
The usual suspects have weighed in - the industry toadies, the cinematic courtiers, the bum-kissing apologists disguised as reviewers - wriggling with delight about "A Knight's Tale," extolling its originality, its defiance of filmic rules, its audacious juxtaposing of the modern and the classical.
To add insult to injury, they have compared the movie to Monty Python's acidic historical huggermuggers and "Shakespeare In Love's" gracefully startling anachronism.
They are so wrong.
Which is not to say the movie fails. It doesn't. It is mildly delightful, entertaining, true to itself. But it is, more than anything, determinedly old-fashioned: a young man succeeds, through sheer grit and talent and hard work. He rises, improbably, beyond his station: wins the big prize, gets the woman he loves, proves an inspiration. It is "Bad News Bears" without that work's embarrassing vulgarity and crassness. It is "Remember the Titans" without that work's embarrassing piousness. It is "Gladiator" without that work's grandeur and high stakes. It is "Free Willy" without anthropomorphism.
Heath Ledger (he was Mel Gibson's eldest son in "The Patriot") is William, a squire, one of three, to an aging knight. When the knight dies he takes over, in disguise, and enters, - illegally, only knights can compete - a series of jousting tournaments throughout Europe. (The film turns these events into a sort of Grand Prix circuit, complete with a world championship in London.)
His arch rival - for the "best of show" prizes and for the prim, but frisky, Lady Joselyn - is evil Count Adhemar. Adhemar is good, very good, but he is also cruel, misogynistic, and a dirty low-down cheater. We want him to eat dust and worse. And he does. William's camp is well populated: there is the genial and loyal Roland (Mark Addy), the fiery-tempered and loyal Wat (Alan Tudyk), and thoroughly modern Kate (Laura Fraser), an armorer and metallurgist who invents tempered steel.
Lastly there is Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany). His character is most engaging: we first see him "trudging" naked through the woods. He has a gambling problem and is quite the egomaniac - "You've probably read my book" - and showman - he introduces William with all the too-familiar extravagant cadences of a pro-wrestling announcer. The Chaucer character, however likable, cannot hold a candle to the Bard of Avon in "Shakespeare In Love." This is leftovers, "Shakespeare In Love" Lite. Monty Python without the witheringly subversive intelligence.
As far as all that rule-breaking nonsense: there are, scattered here and there, a few crumbs of modern slang, and a few nice moments of soundtrack: Queen's "We Will Rock You" leads us into the first tournament, with the serfs doing the wave, painting their faces, doing the slinky-Sue shirtless in the stands. Oh yeah, Kate the armorer puts her "mark" on her armor. It turns out to be a prototype of the Nike swoosh.
But no matter. The sets are competent. The banter warm and genial. The jousting itself engaging. There is tension. There is moving sentimentality (William is reunited with his long-separated father) and there is a general amiable sense of comradeship and decency about the entire production that overrides its beige predictability and wins us over by the end.