A Knight’s Tale (review)

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Saturday Knight Fever

Prithee, dude, when thou dost compile thine list of the most offensive pig swill on yon silver screen for the Year of Our Lord 2001, forget not to includest A Knight’s Tale. Verily, mayhap it will ascend without hindrance to the very pinnacle of the accounting.

Surely, this bizarrity will be the movie that Heath Ledger disavows in a decade: When he’s an enormous star promoting a new film for which he is generating Oscar buzz, and Leno mentions, with his snickering chuckle, A Knight’s Tale, you gotta believe that Ledger will shift uncomfortably in his seat, mumble some half-deprecating comment, and immediately change the subject.
For however appealing the movie might sound in concept — a boy from the wrong side of the moat fulfills his dream of becoming a knight, his adventures set to modern rock music and infused with modern attitudes — the execution is nothing short of embarrassing. Writer/director/producer Brian Helgeland (who rightly won an Academy Award for his brilliant L.A. Confidential screenplay — how far the mighty fall) deserves to be put in the stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables for this hamhanded, utterly witless melding of high-school angst and medieval adventure.

Sitting through A Knight’s Tale is like being forced to attend a really bad Renaissance Festival — it’s like Monty Python for Morons, in which Helgeland throws in anachronisms not to make any particular point or to tickle the intellectual funny bone but just because he can. There’s nothing amusing about seeing medieval peasants doing the Wave or singing along with Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” and such temporally misplaced allusions do nothing to deepen our appreciation of or amusement at the plight of William (Ledger: The Patriot), squire to a now-dead knight who lies his way into jousting tournaments. Helgeland will even ignore all story logic — in a story he obviously means to be coherent and logical — for a cheap laugh, as when William demonstrates his lack of understanding of what a church holy water fount is for despite that fact that he can quote the Bible, which would have been highly unlikely for a medieval peasant. Either the peasant boy is far more educated in the ways of religious life than he should be, or he isn’t. If Helgeland wants to ignore historical reality, that’s fine, but he’s trying to have his crust of bread and eat it too.

And hey, are we supposed to be laughing at William or cheering him on? Helgeland can’t make up his mind there. He surrounds William with caricatures of friends — for one, Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), yes, that Chaucer, a stereotypical writer, half-crazy, addicted to gambling, who prances around in a fur-trimmed bathrobe-looking thing, like a Hugh Hefner wannabe. He sticks William in a dynamic that brings to mind every revenge-of-the-nerds high school story: The evil knight Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell: Bless the Child, Dark City) is the popular quarterback, the generic lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) is the popular cheerleader whom dorky William wants despite the fact that she is unbelievably cold and bitchy; the unlikely blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser) is the geek girl who is far more deserving of his attention yet remains ignored. Surely such ridiculousness can’t have been unintentional… though I suspect it was.

So, is A Knight’s Tale aimed at teens who still find this kind of stuff enthralling? Then why is the soundtrack dominated not by today’s music but “classic” rock, tunes from the 70s and early 80s? Today’s teen audience wasn’t even born when most (maybe all) of the songs on the soundtrack were hits, so perhaps in Helgeland’s fevered imaginings it is adults who will be drawn to what is, in the end, an unimaginative, unprovocative, and ultimately puerile teen love story. I guess he figures those of us over 30 just aren’t getting our leftover adolescent angst satisfied with the likes of Dawson’s Creek.

Count Adhemar spouts just about the worst bad-guy catchphrase ever captured on film: “You have been weighed, you have been measured, you have been found wanting.” It’s a hideous mouthful, true, but the same could be said for A Knight’s Tale. Huzzah… not.

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