A Knight's Tale
A Knight's Tale

USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 132 minutes.

Cast: Heath Ledger, Rufus Sewell, Mark Addy, Shannyn Sossamon, Paul Bettany, Laura Fraser, Alan Tudyk, Christopher Cazenove, James Purefoy, Bérénice Bejo
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Music: score by Carter Burwell; songs by Queen, David Bowie and a host of other '70s chestnuts
Cinematographer: Richard Greatrex
Producers: Todd Black, Brian Helgeland, Tim Van Rellim
Director: Brian Helgeland


Grade: B- Review by Alison Tweedie-Perry

I f you're going to make a fairy tale of a movie about a medieval squire who would rise above his station and become a knight, set to a Jock Jams soundtrack--and mind, I'm not suggesting you do, because it's dicey business at best--for heaven's sake make sure the script's got wit, the story's got heart, and the leads take it seriously while having fun. Fortunately, writer/director Brian Helgeland (writer/director of Payback, co-writer of L.A. Confidential) has managed to do all that. A Knight's Tale is fun, sharp, sweet, and surprisingly light on groaners of the sort one might expect from the description. If this is what it takes to sell fairy tales in this day and age (and the just-opened Shrek suggests that it is), so be it. After all, in a "once upon a time" tale, it doesn't really matter about the soundtrack, so long as there's a valiant knight with a noble heart, a maiden fair in all senses of the word, and a ripping baddie we can hate without compunction. While not a conventional fairy tale in that there is no magic, no dragons with heads in multiples of three, and no princes running 'round kissing comatose princesses, A Knight's Tale still delivers all the basics of a good old-fashioned yarn.

Once upon a time, there was a squire (Heath Ledger, acting circles around his performance in The Patriot) to a knight who met an unpleasant end just before the start of a jousting tournament. The squire and his two fellow squire-type persons--Roland, the stout, sensible one (Mark Addy, The Full Monty, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas) and Wat, the redheaded, hotheaded one (Alan Tudyk, 28 Days, The Wonder Boys)--were sorely in need of the prize money from the tournament as three days had passed since last they ate. Seeing no alternative options, the young man reckoned that his turns in the practice ring might be good enough to win a few pennies to buy a crust of bread. His mates pointed out that being as the squire was called William Thatcher for being a thatcher's son, and not of noble birth, he could not rightly compete, and would likely get the lot of them killed or worse should he be discovered. But William was brave, and foolish, and blinded by a longing to taste the thrill of the arena, and they were all very hungry. So joust he did. And win he did.Brace for impact

The few silver coins' prize gave brave and foolish William the idea that they could continue on and win more tournaments, thereby lining their pockets a bit to assure their futures in the world. Plus, he'd get to ride around on the horsey some more, tilting at mean, nasty landowning knights who raised taxes on their people to fund their sick obsessions with the sport, thus feeding his own sick obsession with the sport. Or something. No matter, William beat lots of bad guys, and some good knights too, but in a very sportsmanlike way, proving that he was certainly noble by action, if not by birth.

To aid the ruse, the merry band happened to bump into a naked future pillar of English Literature, Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany, Land Girls, the upcoming A Beautiful Mind), who forged documents and acted as the faux knight's rousing herald in exchange for some clothes and help with his gambling debts. Presto, change-o, squire William Thatcher became Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein, hottest rising young star on the jousting circuit. Along the way, he impressed a maiden (Shannyn Sossamon in her film debut) who possessed great beauty, cheeky sass, and a drop-dead wardrobe direct from the Versace Fall Couture Collection of 1371, replete with body paint and weird stick-bundle up-dos. Every tale must have its bad'un, and this one is no exception. The fearsome, loathsome, and exceedingly handsome (but unequivocally bad, bad, bad) Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell, Dark City, Dangerous Beauty), didn't like this upstart from nowhere, and resolved, as the baddies will do, to ensure that Sir Ulrich/William didn't get anything he wanted. And the tale continues on, with a few surprises, a bit of tedium, and some nice adherence to convention without lapsing into total cliché.
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Compared to other "modern" or "fractured" type fairy tales, A Knight's Tale dwells more in the pleasant and enjoyable realm of Ever After than the hysterically lofty heights of Princess Bride-land, but that's not a bad thing. In fact, A Knight's Tale could sort of be viewed as the boy's version of chickfest Ever After, from its modernish style of female comportment and dress to the appearance of majorly famous historical figures who help out in the nick of time. The primary virtue the two films share is a genuine affection for these sorts of stories. While that was expected of Ever After, it was more of a surprise with A Knight's Tale, since the marketing seems bound and determined to sell this as American Pie-meets-the-XFL-in-the-Middle-Ages. Unfortunately, that marketing may do a disservice to the film for that target audience--there simply might not be enough blood and guts and scatological humor. The marketing could also keep away others who might enjoy a sweet fairy tale with some amusing anachronisms.

All told, A Knight's Tale is a harmless bit of fluff that can't be criticized too harshly since it is not attempting anything grand. It's a bit too long, with an odd shift of tone and loss of focus toward the end. For the most part, though, what it aims for, it hits--a bit of fantasy with some action and smiles. Of course, this is the opinion of a semi-reformed fairy tale junkie whose home state's official sport is jousting. Take it as you will.

Review © May 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Columbia Pictures, Inc.

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