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 A KNIGHT'S TALE
Extended Cut

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Heath Ledger, Mark Addy, Rufus Sewell, Shannyn Sossamon, Laura Fraser, Paul Bettany
Director:  Brian Helgeland
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  See Review
Length:  144 Minutes
Release Date:  September 27, 2005

“Can it be done, Daddy?  Can a man change the stars?”

“Yes, my son.  If a man believes, he can do anything.”

Film ***1/2

Some schools of art are deliberate, disciplined, schooled and focused.  Some artists merely go by the basest of instincts, namely “if it feels right, it is right”.  There is no logic in having a 14th century period piece about knightly tournaments begin with a Medieval crowd stomping and clapping to “We Will Rock You” and doing the wave.

And bless Brian Helgeland for it.  There’s enough brainless spectacle at cineplexes every summer that disguise timidity with loudness, violence and machismo.  A Knight’s Tale isn’t afraid to take chances, and doesn’t care if you smirk.  It dares you not to have fun while you watch it.

Heath Ledger plays William Thatcher, one of three young squires with a problem.  Their master has died unexpectedly before the final round of a jousting tournament he was winning.  Without the prize purse, they have no food.  William takes matters into his own hands:  he dons the knight’s armor, saddles his horse, and finishes the match, even though jousting was a sport reserved for nobility…impersonating a knight and taking part in the tournaments would be a serious offence.

William has always dreamed of knighthood, which was technically out of reach because of his peasant birth.  But his father always taught him to have faith and go after his dreams.  With one tournament under his belt, William realizes he might have a future in knighting after all.  With the aid of two trusty squires, a lovely and skilled lady blacksmith (Fraser) and no less than Geoffrey Chaucer himself (Bettany) to pen his fake patents of nobility, William becomes Urlich von Lichtenstein, a master jouster and a regular Sir Lance-a-lot.

One would think watching this movie that knights had no other purpose but to joust in games, but no matter…the newly named Urlich becomes a champion.  The crowds take to him (in part because of Chaucer’s raucous introductions that sound like something from the WWF), and he falls in love with a beautiful young noblewoman, Jocelyn (Sossamon).  I love how the movie handled the romance like every other aspect, with a charming self-depreciating humor.  “Love has given me wings!” William coos.  “I feel like a poet!”  “You may feel like a poet,” his squire replies, “but you sound like an idiot.” 

Once again, the handy Chaucer comes into play, helping his new Lord woo his lady fair, despite William’s obvious lies.  “I give the truth scope,” he brags.  Would Chaucer ever write about his adventures with the squire playing knight?  Check out the knight’s story in The Canterbury Tales and let your imagination run wild.

But no summer film would be complete without a good villain.  Here, it is the smug Count Adhemar (Sewell), who of course, has never been beaten, and who also has his eyes on the lady Jocelyn.  Before the movie is over, things will certainly change.

The movie has a playful, reckless abandon that may raise an eyebrow or two, but an infectious spirit that wins out.  I’d call the banquet scene where stiff moving dancers and a plucky Renaissance sounding tune segues into David Bowie’s “Golden Years” as one of the most joyful movie moments of the year.  Other rock songs accentuate the action, and I’ll leave them for you to discover and smile at the pleasure of hearing them while at the same time, trying to dismiss it as a gimmick that doesn’t work.

The action scenes are impressive, even if just for the reason that there’s only so many ways you can show two men on horses ramming each other with lances.  The exploding balsa wood could have gotten old, but with a few wire tricks and more and more toppers for stunts, plus some increasingly inventive camerawork, we manage to keep hanging on the outcome of every match.  By the finale, you’ll be on the edge of your seat in spite of yourself.

Heath Ledger (the new Matt Damon!), just after his noted performance as Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot, demonstrated an ability to carry a film on his own here.  He’s effectively charming and funny…he knows when to play it seriously and when to wink at his audience.  Young Shannyn Sossamon, discovered while serving as a DJ at a party, is a real find as Jocelyn…she’s as sharp as she is beautiful.  Rufus Sewell is an actor I always enjoy seeing, and he brings an unrepentant sort of mustache-twirling villainy to Adhemar without self consciousness…it’s just the antagonist the film calls for.  Of course, Paul Bettany steals many a scene as Chaucer, and isn’t afraid to play the historic poet in a way no modern audience has ever pictured him.

A Knight’s Tale, by any definition, is simply fun.  It gets high marks for its anachronistic sense of daring-do and for bringing a modern energy and sensibility to a period film.  I don’t know if it’s a formula that will ever require repeating, but for shear guts, for mixing action, comedy and romance in self-depreciating ways, and for beginning with “We Will Rock You” and ending with AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, this film is a welcome change of pace in an otherwise dull and uneventful summer of movies.

Video ****

Watching A Knight’s Tale is a visual joy.  Despite its cheekiness, the palate of the film is that of a rich period piece, which means wonderful, vibrant colors and beautiful art direction.  Scene after scene render impeccably perfect, with amazing detail, natural coloring and flesh tones, and absolutely no sense of grain, distortion or compression to mar the images.  Virtually any frame could be frozen and reproduced as a testament to the capabilities of DVD quality…stunning.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is equally effective, and boy, does it have a lot to work with.  From the rumbling of horses’ hooves that will moan from your subwoofer, to the rowdy crowds that fill every corner of your room, to the dynamic range including the thundering fights to the quiet crackle of a fire, this disc makes the most of digital surround.  Panning effects are clean and smooth on every axis of transition, dialogue is always clearly rendered, and of course, the punch of the movie’s rock soundtrack is pure.  Top marks all the way!

Features ***

The features start with 11 short production featurettes, each dealing with a specific aspect of the movie from the rock soundtrack to the costuming, from the stunt work to Heath Ledger himself.  For a more coherent and comprehensive look, the original 15 minute HBO making-of special is also included.  There is also a music video of Robbie Williams and Queen performing “We Are the Champions”.

Summary:

Resistance is feudal (insert groan here).  A Knight’s Tale is cheeky, reckless fun that throws caution to the wind and dares to flaunt its warped sense of style with disarming candor.  Unashamedly recommended.

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