Hollywood’s current fashion for legend epics (see also that epic of blondness Troy) continues with this rendering of olde England from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua and master of silliness Jerry Bruckheimer. It features lots of mud, some angry Saxons with pretty braids and a bunch of pre-Uzbeks (Sarmatians) – amongst them Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain. The Knights of the Round Table were Uzbeks?! Suspend disbelief – there’s much more to come. Like Ken Stott as a Roman.
The tale presents Arthur as a schizophrenic son of Rome, pressed into service from his native Sarmatia to enforce the Empire’s will in the rowdy outpost of Britannia. Except he’s also English – something to do with him exchanging significant glances with Woad woman Guinevere (a kooky Keira Knightley) and magical mumblings with magician Merlin, whose blue facepaint is one of the highlights of the film.
In circa century five we find Clive Owen’s Arthur with an estuary English accent, and Knightley’s Guinevere seemingly from somewhere higher up the hill. They’re in the company of a bona fide Cockney tough guy (Ray Winstone – now there’s a surprise…) and Saxon big boy Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgaard) who inexplicably speaks Trans-Atlantic and looks curiously like Metallica‘s James Hetfield in the days before haircuts and rehab. It’s this performance that rather sums up the film – he mumbles, he ambles, he generally looks bored. Owen and Knightley are steadfast throughout – but the whole ensemble feels somehow like a poor man’s Braveheart.
Fuqua’s directing for much of the first portion of the film is messy, as is the editing. Scenes trail off, cameras switch angles before time enough to absorb the last action has elapsed and the storytelling never finds a cohesive voice. There’s lots about freedom and tyranny and a smidgen about religion, but it never comes together convincingly as a story. Perhaps Hollywood’s ber-narrator John Hurt was busy when this was being filmed. I can’t say I blame him.
Then of course there are the battle scenes. Many of these approach excitement, none more so than a battle between the Knights and the Saxons on an icy river. Green hills, intricate woodlands and cloudy skies help to give the cinematography a suitably dark character, and the effects do not (for once in a Hollywood epic) overbear.
But the defining moments are mirthmaking. Imagine, if you will, a soldier skewered through the heart who then finds time to appraise his injuries (to music, naturally), look meaningfully at his assailant and then skewer him through the heart as well. An audible chuckle rippled through the auditorium and posteriors wiggled in seats.
It’s funny that some film makers believe the myth of multiplex audiences generally being undiscerning, with the attention span of your average gnat. You only have to listen to the post-film chatter to know the truth. The audiences know when a film is absurd and when the acting’s bad – they’re just not telling you. Listen to them as they recall Skarsgaard’s acting, at the stupidity of the battles, at the muddled directing. They know. I wonder if Mr Bruckheimer does?