Rarely has a period costume picture been quite so craven in courting a young audience as “A Knight’s Tale.” From celebrants at an elegant 14th century ball breaking into wild modern dancing to the strains of David Bowie’s “Golden Years” to the prince of Wales shouting a clenched-fist “Yes!,” this survey of the European jousting season, circa 1360, imposes contempo behavior, phraseology and attitudes onto inhabitants of the Middle Ages with gleeful abandon. Clearly designed as a star-making vehicle for young Aussie actor Heath Ledger and positively swilling in its deliberate anachronisms, Brian Helgeland’s boisterous, profoundly silly actioner will deeply divide audiences; traditionalists and older viewers in general will scoff, while pop culture addicts will no doubt go with the flow, enough so to give Sony a hit.
So thoroughly does the driving force behind “A Knight’s Tale” feel like a marketing strategy rather than an impulse to tell a story that the character of the film is accurately and entirely summed up by its ad campaign tag line: “He Will Rock You.” But little does one suspect going in that the Queen song of nearly the same name will be used as the picture’s anthem, blasting out during the pivotal early scene in which William Thatcher (Ledger), an English commoner footloose in France, dons the armor of a dead jouster to compete in the nobles-only sport.
His immediate success with a lance launches William on a brilliant career once some phony lineage documents are fashioned by a young vagabond (Paul Bettany) who introduces himself by proclaiming, “Geoffrey Chaucer’s the name, writing’s the game,” and who shortly joins motley squires Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) in the entourage of the impetuous warrior now known as Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland.
Pic plays its major hand right away, with the arena-rock tunes (“The Boys Are Back in Town” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” among others) accompanied by such sights as medieval tournament audiences gesturing in unison and even doing the wave.
Viewers who sign on to this conceit at the outset will no doubt take the rest of the film as a larky good time; those who resist the flagrant incongruities (which stop well short of Monty Pythonesque spoofing) will be gritting their teeth for the next two hours.
Unfortunately, whatever narrative skills Helgeland contributed to the Oscar-winning script of “L.A. Confidential” have dissipated into the flatline chronology of an athletic season depicted here. Beginning in the French countryside and moving along to tourneys in Rouen, Lagny-sur-Marne, Bordeaux, Paris and, finally, to the championship in London, tale never burdens itself with any subplots or complexity, offering only an under-motivated rivalry between an arrogant, cheating aristocrat, Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), and young William, who defies the rigid class system by announcing, “A man can change his stars.”
Of course, William does become romantically distracted, taking a fancy to a willful noblewoman, Jocelyn (Shanynn Sossamon), whom William calls “my foxy lady” and whose fashionably trim apparel would make her right at home in Milan or Miami Beach today.
Only at her command, as a test of his love for her, will William ever lose a match, and his otherwise unimpaired ability to win against all opponents quickly amounts to a stupid decision dramatically, as the flattening of the roller coaster of incident mitigates against any suspense.
A smidgen of poignance surfaces as an afterthought in the late-going when William locates his long-lost blind father (Christopher Cazenove) in London, only to have the reunion reveal the truth about his lowly origins. But even this obstacle is easily overcome, clearing the way for William to compete in the world finals in an arena made (by Ridley Scott’s Mill Film Co. digital effects house) to look nearly as grand and central to 14th century London life as the Colosseum was to ancient Rome’s.
His abundant blond hair tousled to a fare-thee-well and his face a picture of determination that even Kirk Douglas would admire, Ledger fills the bill as a jousting-champ-cum-rock star in a turn that should certainly increase his standing with the intended audience.
Bettany (who is obliged to appear in the nude for long stretches, albeit discreetly enough to ensure a PG-13 rating), Addy and Tudyk are nothing if not noisy and colorful as William’s roistering mates, and Laura Fraser tags along for the ride as a blacksmith who fashions special armor for the people’s favorite. Sewell broods and menaces effectively, but, even in the circumstances, newcomer Sossamon is hopelessly modern as the fair maiden with a devil-may-care attitude.
Shot entirely in Prague and the surrounding countryside, pic was obviously made on a budget but looks good, thanks to handsome locations and sets and very resourceful lensing by Richard Greatrex. Ace composer Carter Burwell fights a futile uphill battle to assert his orchestral compositions in the face of the rock ‘n’ roll outbursts.
Viewers who stick around through the entire end credits are rewarded with a kicker scene of William’s crew indulging in a farting competition. For some this will rep a fitting commentary on the entire picture.