Let Eng­land shake as a leg­end is re­launched

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Stephen Romei King Arthur: Leg­end of the Sword (M) Na­tional re­lease Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Leg­end of the Sword is one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a while. Nor­mally I use “strange” as a com­pli­ment, a bravo to di­rec­tors, screen­writ­ers and ac­tors who take us down un­ex­pected and in­ter­est­ing paths. This time I’m not so sure.

I can see why the $US175 mil­lion movie has flopped at the Amer­i­can box of­fice, per­haps jeop­ar­dis­ing a planned six-part se­ries. It’s not a straight-sworded his­tor­i­cal drama such as King Arthur (2004), with Clive Owen as a Ro­manCeltic Arthur, or a satir­i­cal com­edy like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Nor is it a mu­si­cal like Camelot (1967), with Richard Har­ris as a melo­di­ous monarch, or an an­i­ma­tion such as Dis­ney’s The Sword in the Stone (1963).

It has bits of all four, along with lots of the rapid, time-merg­ing plot­ting and arch, con­tem­po­rary di­a­logue of Ritchie’s best movies, the crime com­edy-dra­mas Lock, Stock and Two Smok­ing Bar­rels (1998) and Snatch (2000).

It also has loads of spe­cial ef­fects, in­clud­ing mak­ing for­mer English foot­ball star David Beck­ham, in his cin­e­matic de­but, look a lit­tle less pretty. I sus­pect the al­most equally hand­some star, fel­low English­man Char­lie Hun­nam, in­sisted on that in his con­tract.

Hun­nam is Arthur, the king-to-be. The more I think about Ritchie’s take on the gen­e­sis of the Arthurian leg­end, the more I like it. Fif­teen min­utes in I was think­ing it was go­ing to be a one-star joust, but it’s bet­ter than that, even if it’s not recog­nised at the ticket booths.

It opens with a tremen­dous bat­tle at Camelot, where the king is Uther Pen­dragon (an au­thor­i­ta­tive Eric Bana, who I wish would do less car rac­ing and more act­ing). The main weapon of the sor­cerer-led be­sieg­ing army is a herd of gar­gan­tuan ele­phants. Watch­ing them wreak havoc made me cheer in­side, given all the hurt we have caused to their non-CGI rel­a­tives.

Pen­dragon pre­vails, but when his thronecov­et­ing brother Vor­tigern (Jude Law, look­ing like a mafia boss) launches a coup, the re­sult is regi­cide. Only Pen­dragon’s young son sur­vives. The last time he sees his fa­ther is with his kingly sword em­bed­ded in his back.

That sword, of course, is Ex­cal­ibur. The rest of the film fol­lows Arthur’s growth into a man and his ambivalent quest to re­venge his fa­ther by killing his un­cle. Vor­tigern is told he must “find the boy, kill him’’ be­cause then “the sword will an­swer only to you”.

The defin­ing mo­ment, when Arthur grips the stone-lodged blade no man had been able to budge, is earth-shak­ing, on screen and to watch. It in­cludes Beck­ham’s brief role as a la­conic, tough sol­dier, and he is good.

There are other thrilling ac­tion scenes, well cap­tured by Ridley Scott’s much-used cin­e­matog­ra­pher John Mathieson. Th­ese should ap­peal to the youth­ful tar­get au­di­ence. How they will re­spond to oth­ers is less cer­tain, such as when Vor­tigern be­seeches an oc­topoid mon­ster with top­less women and a doom­say­ing fat man (or woman?) amid its ten­ta­cles. I liked that bit.

Arthur’s band of rebels in­cludes a beau­ti­ful mage (Astrid Berges-Fris­bey), a black knight (Dji­mon Houn­sou) and lots of ac­tors tak­ing a break from Game of Thrones (one, Ai­dan Gillen, is de­vi­ously funny as a sharp­shoot­ing archer). Aside from the mage, women don’t have prom­i­nent roles. There’s no Guin­e­vere, though she will ap­pear if the se­ries con­tin­ues. In­deed, it’s all quite blokey, in the vein of Ritchie’s crime-come­dies, with Arthur call­ing friends and foes “mate”. There are lots of animals, some of which may be fe­male, in­clud­ing eagles, dogs and a stu­pen­dous snake that made me laugh out loud.

This, I think on re­flec­tion, is part of Ritchie’s plan. Is Ex­cal­ibur, in Arthur’s hands, like a weapon of mass de­struc­tion, as we see it to be? Are the huge snakes and ele­phants real? Or is what we see a fan­tas­ti­cal, mag­i­cal vi­sion of what in the real world, to the men on the bat­tle­field, is more like the blood and guts of Mac­beth?

The King Arthur story is based on folk­lore. There’s no canon­i­cal print ver­sion but the foun­da­tion writ­ers are Bri­tish cleric Ge­of­frey of Mon­mouth, in His­to­ria Regum Bri­tan­niae (circa 1136), and 50 years later the French­man Chre­tien de Troyes, who brought in the Holy Grail and Lancelot, friend and cuck­older of the king.

Ritchie, who co-wrote the script, is far from the first to frolic around the Round Ta­ble. Mark Twain did it in 1889 with the time-travel novel A Con­necti­cut Yan­kee in King Arthur’s Court. As men­tioned, Monty Python had a go. A favourite of mine is ex-Python Terry Gil­liam’s 1999 Holy Grail movie The Fisher King, with Robin Wil­liams and Jeff Bridges. Good for them all, in­clud­ing Ritchie, who brings his dis­tinc­tive 21stcen­tury touch to a time-hon­oured tale.

Arthur (Char­lie Hun­nam) ap­proaches Ex­cal­ibur as the Mage (Astrid Berges-Fris­bey) looks on in Arthur: Leg­end of the Sword

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