He will rock you.
Return with us to the glorious middle ages. Chivalry, jousting, feasting, wenches, and…David Bowie? Well, the 1370s, the 1970s, whatever. A Knight's Tale brings a cheerfully anachronistic spin to the centuries-old traditions of knights engaging each other in mock combat for glory, honor, and perhaps the eye of a lady or two.
Facts of the Case
William (Heath Ledger—The Patriot, 10 Things I Hate About You) and his friends Wot (Alan Tudyk—28 Days) and Roland (Mark Addy—The Full Monty) are humble squires to Sir Ector, who as knights go is in fairly humble straits himself. However, their fortunes take a serious turn for the worse when Sir Ector unexpectedly dies between rounds of a tournament; had he been able to enter the next round, he would surely have won, and thus would have been able to buy food for his starving squires. However, forfeiting the contest will leave them penniless and hungry. With victory assured, William convinces his friends to dress him up in Sir Ector's armor and let him complete the match so that they can collect Sir Ector's prize. William, having never jousted before, takes a nasty blow from the opposing knight, but survives the match.
After this success, William has an idea. He has spent most of his life practicing the knightly arts with Sir Ector; why not continue to pose as a knight, traveling to the tournaments and collecting prizes? It seems like a route to fortune and adventure that the three commoners have never known. Thus is born Sir Ulrich of Gelderland, under which guise William continues to compete in knightly tournaments.
Of course, to pose as a knight, "Sir Ulrich" will need to provide patents of nobility, official documents attesting to his heritage and bloodlines. This fact is pointed out to him by one Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany—Morality Play, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), a not-yet-famous writer with a gambling problem. In exchange for the patents they need, the boys agree to take Chaucer on as Sir Ulrich's herald and include him in their enterprise.
The friends continue their ruse and follow the tournament as it tours Europe, and William continues to win them larger and larger prizes. Along the way he becomes smitten with the lovely Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon, in her film debut), a noble lady of some sort who appears to be just possibly within his reach. Of course, there is a rival for her affections and indeed for the fortune and glory of the tournaments. He is the evil Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell—Dangerous Beauty, Dark City, Hamlet), a ruthless competitor and fearless jouster who aims to block William's path to glory.
As is usually the case with sports movies, be they about baseball or jousting, the rivalry comes down to a crucial match at the World Jousting Championships in London. Tensions are running high as William seeks to prove himself a champion and a true knight once and for all.
A Knight's Tale knows that we all come to a medieval period film with certain preconceptions, and does its best to thumb its nose at them. This is evident from the opening tournament scenes where the crowd belts out Queen's "We Will Rock You," and a chorus of royal trumpeters blast Brian May's guitar solo. And it works, at least for a while.
There are some parts of A Knight's Tale that work pretty well. The jousting scenes, for example, are a treat for the senses. They are very skillfully shot and capture the excitement of these ancient contests pretty well. They aren't as thrilling as the bloodsport captured in Gladiator, but then again, jousting was intended to be non-lethal, at least most of the time. There is also some clever comic interaction among the supporting characters of Wot, Roland, and Kate the Blacksmith (Laura Fraser).
Among the actors, the real standout is Paul Bettany, whose Chaucer is an outrageous, silver-tongued promoter to rival Don King. His pre-match introductions of his master Sir Ulrich are long, energetic speeches designed to pump up the crowd and the movie audience. Bettany pulls it off well, becoming easily the funniest person in the movie. I will also admit to being something of a fan of Heath Ledger, and he was dependably good in this movie, but encumbered with a less than ideal script, about which more later.
A Knight's Tale is shown in anamorphic widescreen, in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. With the exception of their new Superbit line, Columbia TriStar generally has the worst looking video transfers of any of the major studios. This disc, while better than their usual effort, falls victim to most of their usual problems. Foreground images are generally sharp and clear, although fine textures seem just a bit soft at times. Colors are strong and faithfully rendered, although they suffer somewhat as the palette of this movie tends towards more muted, dusty colors. Background images are typical Columbia TriStar, with lots of artifacting, strobing, and a generally noisy, grainy look that creates a lot of false movement in what should be solid surfaces. This is especially notable in darker scenes. Granted, these are minor problems that are not going to detract from anyone's enjoyment of the film, but they are present. Don't get me wrong; overall, the picture quality is very good, but just slightly misses the mark established by certain other DVD studios. (*cough* Dreamworks *cough*)
The audio on this DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a less aggressive mix than you might expect for a movie about knights and jousting. The jousting scenes were quite well done, with some earthshaking hoofbeats and decent directional effects, but seemed to lack just that last bit of sharpness needed to make a truly outstanding DVD audio presentation. Dialogue seemed a bit muffled in some sequences, but nothing terrible. The music did seem to be mixed a bit more aggressively than the rest of the movie; in most places this was fine, and made good use of the full surround system. However, it threatened to drown out even the sounds of combat at some points. One final complaint has more to do with the source material than the DVD, I suspect. In many of the quieter scenes, there is a strange, persistent background noise that makes it sound like the entire flick was shot next to a busy freeway. I couldn't make out exactly what these sounds were, but it sounded very much like heavy traffic. Again, I suspect this might not be totally the fault of the DVD. It may even have been ambient wind noise effects mixed in at an insanely high level. Whatever the case, it was a noticeable detriment to the audio presentation.
One area where Columbia TriStar really excels when they put their mind to it is extra content. For A Knight's Tale they have created a full-blown Special Edition worthy of the name. There are loads of extra features here, guaranteed to make just about anyone happy. Here is a quick list, submitted for your approval:
• HBO Making-of Featurette. This featurette runs for 15
minutes, and is better than most featurettes of this kind. There is a strong
emphasis on Shannyn Sossamon's discovery and big break in the movies, but also a
good focus on the period/modern aspects of the movie, character motivations, and
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A Knight's Tale starts out as a fun adventure, but quickly lets the audience down. The "clever" anachronisms wear out pretty quickly, so that by the time William is riding into London in his Nike armor while the soundtrack cranks out "The Boys are Back in Town," one feels a desire to grab writer/director/producer Helgeland by the collar and shake him violently, telling him that we get it already.
The biggest problem with A Knight's Tale is its dogged adherence to the very formulas and clichès that it purports to bend. The story starts out as fun and quirky, as we meet the characters and explore their lives. However, once all the pieces are put into place the movie takes on an air of inevitability, and grinds on inexorably to a predetermined conclusion. This smacks of laziness in Helgeland's writing, and leads to characters that are mere placeholders. Shannyn Sossamon doesn't have to do anything interesting as Jocelyn, and the character doesn't need to be well written, because she doesn't have to do anything to attract William. It is enough that she is the beautiful lady in the story, which means that William will automatically fall in love with her, because the conventions of the plot require it. Frankly, I was hoping that William would wind up with Kate, Laura Fraser's spitfire blacksmith, but of course that would have required some originality. Similar problems plague Sewell's underwritten and underperformed Count Adhemar and Ledger's William. Even the jousting sequences, thrilling to the senses as they may be, become mere cogs in the creaky machinery of plot devices far more ancient than knights in armor. We know exactly what is going to happen well in advance, because we understand the conventions of the plot, and often because the characters themselves tell us so in their dialogue.
As a result of this underwritten script, none of the actors have much to work with. Shannyn Sossamon may be a fine actress, but we won't be able to tell until we see her in something else. Jocelyn as written is a boring, pointless character, and to expect any actress to salvage her would be asking too much. Ledger, who showed such promise opposite Mel Gibson in The Patriot, walks through the movie with his hands tied.
Helgeland's direction and visual style leave a lot to be desired as well. He states a couple of times in the commentary track that he chose to "show the people the world and let them choose what to look at." This theory may work in a minimalist Dogme 95 flick, but there is an inherent absurdity in creating an entire world and then pretending not to manipulate the audience's perception. Frankly, if one is going to spend that much money on sets and props, he better darn well put a little effort into determining what is important in each shot.
Finally, while the extra content was good and provided a lot of information about the real jousting tournaments and their tours of Europe, I would have liked a little more authoritative information about them from an impartial source. The Gladiator DVD included a Discovery Channel documentary on those games; the inclusion of a similar item on this disc would have gone a long way to bolster the movie's credibility.
Looking for an anachronistic, hilarious spoof on medieval times? Wait for Columbia TriStar's special edition of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, releasing soon. The Pythons have covered all of this ground before, and better. I'll take them over half-warmed sports flick clichès in period costume any day.
Still, A Knight's Tale isn't a terrible movie. It has its charms, and more than a few laughs. The jousting scenes, in spite of being utterly predictable, are a lot of fun. Overall, however, the movie is a disappointment, and could have been a lot better if only Helgeland had gone out on a few more limbs than just the inclusion of a few rock tunes.
It pains me to say that I find this movie guilty. I wanted to like it, and looked forward to seeing it, but all it brought was a few classic rock tunes and a few sight gags that got very old very fast. Still, the jousting was pretty exciting, or at least it would have been if the plot didn't telegraph the outcome of each match.
Columbia TriStar is acquitted on the strength of a good but not great DVD presentation, and an outstanding collection of special features.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• HBO "Making of" Featurette
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