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"A KNIGHT'S TALE"
(2001) (Heath Ledger, Mark Addy) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Adventure: A young squire, accompanied by a hodgepodge of friends, fakes his way into various 14th century jousting contests and then tries to win the hand of a fair maiden all while dealing with a nefarious count who's determined to defeat him.
PLOT:
William Thatcher (HEATH LEDGER) is a young squire who's always dreamed of being a champion knight who competes in prestigious jousting tournaments. Unfortunately, he was born the son of John (CHRISTOPHER CAZENOVE), a poor thatcher, and thus seems unlikely to leave his station in life.

He gets that chance, however, when his master dies and he brazenly takes his place in a tournament that he wins. Buoyed by his success, William tries to convince his two friends, Roland (MARK ADDY) and Wat (ALAN TUDYK), that they could help him train and become a champion. Knowing their place in life, they try to remind William that only knights can compete, and that they'd never get away with such a ruse.

That changes when they run into Geoff Chaucer (PAUL BETTANY), a write with some serious gambling debts who agrees to forge some entry papers for William in exchange for their help. Donning the name and guise of Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland, the unlikely team trains and enters William into a nearby tournament where he places second in the jousting contest to Count Adhemar (RUFUS SEWELL), the nefarious reigning champion.

Entranced by the lovely maiden Jocelyn (SHANNYN SOSSAMON), and equipped with new and revolutionary armor from outcast blacksmith Kate (LAURA FRASER), William continues on his quest to become champion of his sport. As he continues to woo Jocelyn and has a chance meeting with Colville (JAMES PUREFOY), a.k.a. Edward, the Black Prince, William does what he can to make sure that he can defeat Adhemar upon their next competitive meeting.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Unless one is referring to time travel movies, the general rule of thumb is that it's best and generally wise to keep the temporal elements in line with the setting in which the story takes place. Contemporary films obviously usually have no problem following this rule, but it's not uncommon for filmmakers of period films to allow more modern language, behavior and attitudes to appear in their production.

Be it a mistake or a conscious attempt to connect with today's viewers, such temporal incongruities are often so jarring that they distract the viewer and thus disengage him or her from the proceedings with thoughts of "They wouldn't say/do that back then."

Of course, some filmmakers purposefully mix their temporal elements so as to shock or throw off their audience. The most recent examples include Baz Luhrmann setting Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet story into contemporary America in "Romeo + Juliet" and Julie Taymor interjecting modern day props into her edgy and stylish adaptation of the Bard's "Titus."

Such filmmakers run the risk of alienating certain portions of their viewing audience who either won't understand what's occurring or simply won't accept the storytelling technique. Both effects are likely to occur with "A Knight's Tale," a preposterously goofy but moderately entertaining 14th century jousting flick that not only includes contemporary dialogue and other modern day trappings in its medieval setting, but also a 20th century rock soundtrack.

The effort here doesn't seem present to shock, startle or even have one contemplate the juxtaposition of such disparate elements. Instead, it comes off as a rather blatant, if somewhat successful attempt at making the story, characters and setting more accessible to the film's target audience of teen and twenty-something viewers. While cinema purists and older viewers are likely to balk at the ploy, I suppose there's some validity to the notion, even if it's somewhat faulty and ill timed in two important areas.

For one, teen-based or targeted films have recent been experiencing the cinematic rap of death at the box office, with the highly desirable demographic seemingly having abandoned films aimed and marketed directly at them. Then there's the fact that writer/director Brian Helgeland ("Payback," writer of "Conspiracy Theory") has opted to choose '70s era rock music - rather than more modern day tunes - for the film's "contemporary" soundtrack.

While the pep-rally/sports anthem "We Will Rock You" (that has the repetitive refrain, "We will, we will, rock you") is probably still familiar to the target audience, many of the other classic rock songs are probably about as ancient to today's young viewers as are the more appropriate sounding minstrel ditties of old.

Although I may be oblivious to an entire retro classic rock movement among today's youth, the selection of such songs seems like something of a miscalculation on Helgeland's part. The same holds true for his apparent decision to dumb down the basic underlying story into something approaching typically mindless summer fare. Little if anything - beyond the music and contemporary material - will come as a surprise to viewers, and such predictable and dramatically inert writing will have many wondering whether this is just a momentary lapse or if the scribe's terrific work on "L.A. Confidential" was an aberration.

All of that said, if you can accept and/or at least not mind the blended temporal concoction or the lackluster and simplistic story, you may just end up enjoying what the film has to offer, at least to some degree. Although not a traditional spoof and clearly not as irreverently hilarious as the period comedies the Monty Python troupe once delivered or as charming or intelligent as "The Princess Bride," the film does have something of an infectiously goofy feel to it.

From the early moment where spectators at a jousting tournament begin to clap/stomp along with Queen's aforementioned classic rock song to a banquet scene where a period dance progressively turns more contemporary as does the music that eventually becomes David Bowie's "Golden Years," it quickly becomes obvious that the film isn't intended to be taken seriously, but instead should be viewed as something of a guilty pleasure.

It certainly doesn't hurt that the film's performers are obviously game for playing along with the effort. The most obvious such performance comes from Paul Bettany ("Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," "The Land Girls") as Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous real-life English poet. Beyond sporting his bare behind several times for the story, Bettany creates a roguish fellow who revels in bombastic introductions to jousting contests that would fit in with today's theatrical WWF proclamations or the rousing "Let's get ready to rumble!" war cry heard before various boxing matches.

Period and contemporary mixtures of speech and behavior are also given to the characters played by Mark Addy ("Down to Earth," "The Full Monty") and Alan Tudyk ("28 Days," "Wonder Boys") as the comic relief squires, Laura Fraser ("Titus," "Cousin Bette") as a liberated female blacksmith, and Shannyn Sossamon (who makes her feature film debut) as the obligatory fair maiden. All deliver performances that might not be anything great or remarkable, but certainly fit the bill for what's asked of them.

The film really belongs to Heath Ledger ("The Patriot," "10 Things I Hate About You"), however, whose lead performance as the talented but faux knight is what sells the picture. Sporting something of a young Patrick Swayze look and attitude, the young actor imbues his character, and the film for that matter, with such an infectious and disarming "can do" spirit that you can't help but be drawn to him and root for his success.

Of course, it doesn't help that there's little doubt that he'll succeed in his quest to win both the championship and the maiden's heart, that various and contrived complications are easily overcome, or that the nefarious opponent character played by Rufus Sewell ("Bless the Child," "Dark City") is far too simplistic and one-dimensional to be as effective as one would like.

Nonetheless, and regardless of the film's myriad problems - including the fact that the picture is too long (at over two hours) for its campy genre -- it will probably work for some viewers. If they can manage to overlook such deficiencies or simply understand where the film's going and what it's trying to do, they may subsequently enjoy being taken along for the ride.

While I would normally rake a film such as this over the coals, its goofy, guilty pleasure aura that permeates the proceedings prevents me from doing just that. Unarguably no great piece of filmmaking, "A Knight's Tale" manages to be moderately entertaining and enjoyable within its own set of parameters, and thus rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 19, 2001 / Posted May 11, 2001


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