May 18, 2001

A Knight's Tale fails to rock anyone

Fairy tales always make the best bedtime stories -- the good knight rides up gallantly on his white horse, defeats the evil knight in black, wins the beautiful princess, and saves the kingdom. Writer/director Brian Helgeland's new film, A Knight's Tale, is the perfect bedtime story: it'll rock you right to sleep.

Nothing but hype and punchy one-liners, A Knight's Tale is fluffier than cotton candy. Heath Ledger is William Thatcher, son of a peasant worker in medieval London, who dreams, against all odds, of changing his fate. In a rags to riches story that could have been written by a thirdgrader, young Will gains an opportunity to "change his stars" and become a knight. In the guise of a nobleman, Will becomes a champion in the joust and wins the hand of the lovely maiden, only to find out, of course, that what matters in the end is being a true knight at heart.

The film intentionally has all the conventional foundations of a storybook fantasy, but none of the enchantment. I regretfully admit that Disney could have done a better job. As crowds gather for the competitions, they burst out into a chorus of "We Will Rock You" while dancing and doing the wave. The courtship ball turns into a modern dance party as the music changes. Characters act no differently than if they were plucked from the 21st century to travel back in time to the medieval court. Though the idea for weaving modern elements into a film about knights, honor, and jousting is daring, this film fails to do anything with it except make us feel jarred at every ridiculous turn. Because of this, the film creates a clash between medieval and modern, making it feel disjointed and immature, rather than campy or witty.

After his master dies from an unfortunate blow in a jousting tournament, William puts on the knight's armor and jousts in his master's place in order to feed himself and his two companions. He wins that tournament in his master's name, whetting his appetite for the honorable life of a knight at court. Of course, William cannot stop at one tournament; he has tasted glory for the first time. He decides to continue masquerading as a knight and goes into strict training to improve his jousting skills. On the road, he just happens to meet young Geoffrey Chaucer, played comically by Paul Bettany, who befriends him and writes up fake identification papers proving William's nobility for six generations.

As "Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein," William competes and wins the hearts of kings and peasants alike, and naturally wins the heart of the noble maiden Jocelyn, played rather flatly by newcomer Shannyn Sossamon. Helgeland fails to give roundness to Jocelyn's character; in her he creates the typical male interpretation of woman -- fickle, coy, prideful, unsympathetic to a simple man who cannot write poetry or dance. She goes to ridiculous lengths to test William's love, only to be the one who courts him in the end.

Of course, our hero wouldn't be a very brave one without the black knight on a black horse to oppose his success. As the rival suitor for Jocelyn's hand and the undefeated tournament champion, Count Adhemar naturally poses the biggest threat to William. Played with uncompromising evil by Rufus Sewell, Count Adhemar holds the highest position of honor in any court and cannot stand for an unknown man to challenge his pride. He and William naturally brew hostility towards one another in competing for the lady's affection, snowballing into an obsession with defeating each other. Ironically, William spends more time obsessing over Adhemar than over his beloved Jocelyn.

This film does what every film about one particular sport does -- it over-dramatizes a tournament into life-or-death melodrama. The predictable clash of wills and power struggle only serve to bring us the same old conflicts in the same old story line. The tournament champion is the hero because he can drive a stick at his opponent, and as a prize, he wins a lovely lady's hand in marriage. Helgeland's film chases its own tail in trying to create the underdog hero who jousts with perfection, loves with tenderness, hates with honor, and wins with glory, every time.

Filmed and edited like the typical Hollywood action blockbuster, the predictably high-tension sequences go something like: opponent, William, Jocelyn, William's horse, close-up of opponent's eyes, close-up of William's eyes, then a slow-motion moment of victory as they charge at one another. Helgeland follows this formula from beginning to end, leaving no room for the story to develop a momentum of its own. We are spoon-fed the bedtime fairy tale along with its take-home message: that one man can "change his stars" if he is a knight at heart. A Knight's Tale carries little more than that one catchy line and a few laughs at the expense of Guinevere and Lancelot.