A Knight's Tale (2001)

D: Brian Helgeland
S: Heath Ledger, Shannon Sossamon

Surprisingly watchable light adventure from writer/director Brian Helgeland (Payback) which thumbs its nose at medieval purists before the credits have even finished by having the crowd at a jousting tournament clapping their hands in time to Queen's We Will Rock You. If you laugh with this gag (as opposed to at it), then the rest of the movie will be an entertaining romp through the never neverland of Hollywood history. The film has no relationship whatsoever with historical drama and most certainly does not offer itself as a primer on medieval England, so don't expect one and don't be upset as a group of dancers break into a Saturday Night Fever-type dance routine to David Bowie's Golden Years about half way through. From the sound of it, you might think the film is a madcap parody in the style of Mel Brooks or Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams, but no; the film is actually a relatively straight adventure replete with characters and a storyline which require your involvement with them.

It features Heath Ledger (The Patriot) as a young squire who poses as a knight to compete in jousting tournaments so that he and his fellow servants might eat when their master dies unexpectedly. He turns out to be quite good at it, and his ambitions become more lofty as he sees the rewards in admiration and fame of being a superstar. He becomes one of the most popular knight's on the jousting circuit, and comes to the attention of a beautiful lady whose heart he longs to win (Shannon Sossamon). This brings him into conflict with arrogant nobleman Rufus Sewell (Dark City), the reigning jousting champion and would-be suitor to the lady in question. The two go head to head on and off the track, setting off a whole set of questions about the feudal class war and one's ability to forge one's own destiny in the face of a caste system.

The pleasures of the film are in the delicate balance it achieves between postmodernist farce and old-fashioned adventure. In a classically Hollywood way, this is a contemporary tale for a contemporary audience which just happens to have people dressed in period costume. There was never really any question that Errol Flynn was anyone but Errol Flynn when he played Robin Hood or Captain Blood, and there was no doubt that films like James Whale's The Man in the Iron Mask served the needs of the society of their time rather than some eternal truth of the original text. Helgeland has a lot of fun throwing in contemporary references, but he also simply updates the story elements so that despite the social issues raised by feudalism, this is a movie about good old fashioned American individualism: a wish-fulfillment fantasy of 'poor boy makes good' worked through the metaphor of the sports icon in a historical setting. Being aware of all of this, Helgeland is relatively unpretentious about what thematic ground he can cover, and the film is actually consistent on this level. An important sub-plot about Ledger's dear old Dad (Christopher Cazenove) actually turns out quite poignantly, and with the benefit of a solid script and generally sincere performances, the film holds together on its own terms.

Though it boasts several well-mounted bone-crunching action scenes and is generally slickly made and fast moving, the film's real shining star is Paul Bettany (Gangster No.1) as a penniless itinerant writer who falls in with Ledger and his gang. Ranging from believable desperation to outrageous demagoguery which makes him akin to a wrestling arena announcer, Bettany creates a vivid impression of a lovable chancer which offsets Ledger's sometimes sombre interpretation of someone taking a similar risk. Again it reinforces the film's self-referential and thematic preoccupations to reveal the identity of this particular character, which I'll leave you to find out on your own.

The other performers are also generally good. Mark Addy (The Full Monty) and Alan Tudyk (Wonder Boys) are fun as the hero's skeptical sidekicks, Sewell makes a great icy baddie, Sossamon is completely contemporary as the lady of Ledger's affections (hair mousse and purple highlights weren't really a feature of many medieval courts to the best of my knowledge), and Laura Fraser (Titus) has an amusing role as a female blacksmith with some points to make about female self-determination which would have gotten her burned at the stake had the film been true to period.

The film has the feeling of a one-joke idea which could collapse the entire thing in seconds. It is a sports movie set in medieval times laced with a heavy dose of class consciousness. Fortunately, demonstrating deft control over character, dialogue, and action, Helgeland pulls it off. That is, of course, if you actually can get past the first minute at all. If you find yourself huffy and hostile once you know where it is going, then leave the theatre immediately and head for the library. This is a light film on every level, postmodernist only by definition, serious only as it needs to be, funny as it requires. It is coherent enough to take at face value insofar as you might expect to have to, but has enough of a sense of humour about everything it is doing to make it easy to like. We can talk later about deep and meaningful things if you like, but if you're going to see this movie, you're there for harmless yuks and that's it.

As a side note, this film may be remembered as a footnote in contemporary American cinema as one of the two which boasted ad copy lines from the ficitious film critic Dave Manning, invented by a marketing executive to ensure good quotes on the poster (the other one was the Rob Schneider vehicle The Animal). In this case, it certainly wasn't necessary: the movie stands on its own merits and should prove enjoyable for (almost) all the family.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.