King Arthur (review)

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Serfs Up

Leather and swords and British accents and gorgeous guys wielding them all can make a gal overlook a lot of badness in a flick. But not quite this much. Not when perhaps the grandest legend of British history gets thoroughly demythologized, and nothing rushes in to fill all the empty spaces but self-conscious, naive posturing about freedom and equality and self-determination.
Yup, in medieval England — help, help, all those serfs are being repressed! Nope, this isn’t a Monty Python movie, though it is full of exactly the kind of pomposity the Pythons would have skewered. Oh, King Arthur isn’t entirely snicker-worthy — there are some thrilling moments — but that only makes it more frustrating, when you can see how the whole endeavor could have been as thrilling as it thinks it is.

The thing is, King Arthur was never going to wear the mantle of serf’s champion well, but the film gives up without even trying. “Arthur,” an invading Saxon warlord (Stellan Skarsgard: Dogville, Helen of Troy) spits out upon meeting the guy, “wherever I go on this wretched island, I hear your name, half whispered, as if you were a god.” This is news to us, coming as it does toward the end of the film. Woulda been nice if we could have, you know, witnessed some of this outrageous godlike behavior for ourselves. We’re meant to be moved by the prospect of Roman officer Artorius Castus (Clive Owen: Beyond Borders, The Bourne Identity) coming to his senses, realizing that he’s as much British as he is Roman (Mom married one of her occupiers), and swinging into action to save all the nice people of Britain from both the cruelty of their Roman overlords and then, when the Romans go home, the cruelty of the invading Saxons. But the evidence of this change of heart just isn’t there — we have to simply take the film’s word for it that Artorius is a great man, and worse, a great man by today’s standards, not those of A.D. 480. This is a superhero origin story with none of the origins, a bare sketch of a movie.

It’s tempting to say that Clive Owen is badly miscast as Arthur. With a better script — David Franzoni (Amistad) merely takes his own Gladiator screenplay and does it up Lord of the Rings lite — one that gave Owen some actual interaction beyond that with his horse and his sword, this could have been a showcase for his devastating intensity. But with only his own resources to rely upon, no matter how considerable they are, he exudes too contemporary an attitude — there’s nothing medieval about his Arthur. It’s not his fault — he’s got nothing to work with here. When he can command the screen, when he’s not fighting with Arthur’s earnest-adolescent philosophy, he’s exhaustingly wonderful. But that’s just not often enough.

And so it goes with King Arthur. There’s one spectacularly original battle, set on a frozen lake, that’s suspenseful and clever and unlike anything we’ve seen onscreen before… but then the climactic battle scene is a godawful mess, with no sense of space and place — director Antoine Fuqua (Tears of the Sun, Training Day) should be kept away from the epic of scale. Guinevere (Keira Knightley: Love Actually, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) has been recast as a Woad, one of the indigenous warrior pagans of Britain, and she’s much cooler and more capable than the typical action-movie girl usually gets to be… but there’s no opportunity for any kind of genuine connection to develop between her and Arthur, and their Hollywood love scene has no reason to be in the film at all except, Hey, it’s Artie and Gwen: gotta get ’em together. Lancelot? Romantic literature’s original love triangle has been completely dispensed with, except, perhaps, in the sense that there’s a much stronger affinity between Arthur and his lieutenant than we ever see between Arthur and Guinevere. (Ioan Gruffudd [Horatio Hornblower, Very Annie Mary], as Lancelot, is one of the few young British actors who could’ve been counted on to hold his own against Owen, and he does the most, of the whole sadly neglected cast, with the little he’s given to do.)

Mostly, there’s a lot of nonsense afoot. Why would a Roman family establish an estate north of Hadrian’s Wall, where all the savages live, except as an excuse to set the thin plot in motion? Why would Hans Zimmer be allowed to turn in the same overwrought Hans Zimmer score again? And what’s the point in revisiting Arthur’s tale if Merlin is all but absent? There’s simply all kinds of magic missing here.

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