Brandishing a surprising seriousness of purpose for a would-be summer blockbuster, “King Arthur” bracingly repositions the Arthurian myth in a specific and savage historical moment quite removed from its usual placement in a bucolic world of chivalrous knights, a mischievous magician and an errant queen. Impressively made and well acted by an exceedingly attractive cast, this dark tale of ceaseless conflict is adult entertainment and will likely disappoint viewers expecting a “Camelot”-like love triangle, as it will the fun-seeking youth audiences that made “Pirates of the Caribbean” a smash for Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer a year ago. As a result, domestic B.O. will likely be closer to that of “Braveheart,” which grossed only $76 million even with its Oscars, than to the Bruckheimer norm. In line with most big-canvas action fare, overseas should yield considerably higher returns.
This Irish-British co-production without a single American in it feels more like a European film than a Hollywood venture. For original “Gladiator” writer David Franzoni, script seems like another chapter in his own telling of the fall of the Roman Empire, this time concentrating on the period in the fifth century (scarcely, if ever depicted before in the cinema) when Rome, faced with barbarian encroachments closer to home, decided to call it a day in Britannia, the island it had occupied since 60 A.D. For director Antoine Fuqua, it’s another example of pushing what could have been standard genre material into unexpectedly gritty and stimulating realms.
To kids and anyone else clueless about the period, opening stretch will be a bit of a slog, as confusingly positioned narration and compressed dialogue fight an uphill battle to explain how subdued Sarmatian warriors (from what is roughly Georgia today) were long before enlisted in the Roman army and sent to Britain to help maintain the peace in one of the empire’s most distant outposts. Descendants of these fighters now, in 452 A.D. — the time frame is curious, in that Rome actually withdrew in 410 — represent the inner circle of soldiers under the command of Lucius Artorius Castus, a half-Roman, half-Briton who the film, using shreds of historical evidence, plausibly argues might have served as the inspiration for the Arthur of legend.
Thinking his work done and longing to return to his dream city after years of fighting guerrilla fighters from the north known as the Woads, Artorius, or Arthur (Clive Owen), is therefore dismayed to receive orders from a newly arrived bishop to take his men north to rescue a young Roman beloved by the Pope. Mission appears almost suicidal, not only because it leads through Woad territory but because marauding Saxons are on the verge of sweeping into the territory.
Rome’s dwindling status is neatly summed up in an early scene that reveals only six surviving soldiers, other than the commander himself, remaining to sit at Arthur’s enormous round table. They are: Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Arthur’s closest friend but also most frequent critic; Bors (Ray Winstone), a boisterous bruiser with a huge brood of bastard kids, and the less characterized Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson).
With the promise that they’ll finally be granted freedom upon their return, this Wild Bunch, or Magnificent Seven, is quickly entrapped by the Woads, led by the mysterious Merlin (Stephen Dillane, all but unrecognizable in virtual Undead makeup). Just as quickly released, they make their way to the remote villa of the aristocratic father of the teenager they’re meant to take home.
Interlude that follows speaks volumes about the nature of the Roman occupation in Britain and the competing religious factions within the Christianized empire. In simple strokes, production designer Dan Weil superbly sums up how Romans tried to precisely reproduce their native lifestyle wherever they settled. Script deftly introduces the element of the early church’s intolerance, which represented a huge change from Rome’s centuries-long policy of allowing its conquered peoples to continue observing their own gods and traditions.
But while these historical niceties will probably sail past most viewers, this urgent sequence also serves to kick-start the narrative 45 minutes in. Among the prisoners found in the villa’s private dungeon is the ailing but feisty Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who despite her unwashed appearance strikes immediate sparks with Arthur.
Production’s great set piece shortly follows. With a splinter group of bloodthirsty Saxons in hot pursuit, the Roman caravan, which now includes the villa’s native serfs Arthur feels duty-bound to protect, heads into the mountains through the snow and, most precariously, over a small frozen lake. Arthur entices the Saxons into battle as the mighty Dagonet hacks away at the ice until it splits open and swallows up dozens of barbarians. Some CGI work contributes to the exciting spectacle, but as elsewhere in the picture it’s kept to a refreshing minimum, enhancing the film’s sense of realism. (Entire ice battle sequence reportedly derives from an early Franzoni draft of “Gladiator.”)
With the successful completion of Arthur’s final official mission comes his conversion from Roman commander to British leader. Realizing his enemy is no longer Rome but the Saxons, Merlin casts his lot with Arthur, while Guinevere, having shown herself to be a skilled archer, advises Arthur that “These are your people” in the course of seducing him. Internally, Arthur resigns himself to a British future after learning that Rome no longer embodies his overriding dream of free choice for all.
For a contemporary action film that takes pains to deliver on a visceral level (pic decidedly skirts, and arguably exceeds, the normal bounds of PG-13 violence), all the sober moral and philosophical detailing gives weight to the title character’s decision making. Arthur is not swayed by the emotional impact of injustice nearly as much as he is by the principles he’s always lived by; when the guiding light emanating from Rome is compromised, he has the strength of character to transfer his loyalties to a cause that definitely needs and might possibly justify his support.
Well-structured picture naturally builds to a final fight, based on the actual Battle of Badon Hill in which the Saxons were decisively turned back. In fictional terms, it’s this victory that transforms the victor into King Arthur, a man destined for hallowed status as a potential unifier of a divided land. As a version of who Arthur might have been if he existed at all, this telling is as credible as any other.
What the film does not offer, however, is the King Arthur of T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot” or John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” all exceptional works dedicated to the elaboration of myth and legend. Here, the relationship between Arthur and Guinevere seems more expedient than romantic, and there is just the barest hint of an illicit attraction between Guinevere and Lancelot.
Owen is like a solid oak as Arthur, rugged, manly, capable, true to his word and to himself. Fuqua and lenser Slawomir Idziak most often shoot the actor at a three-quarters angle favoring his left side, and the effect often calls to mind Richard Burton in his period roles. Post-“Croupier,” this role and performance shows Owen at his best and most charismatic.
Even if Guinevere emerges as less central than is suggested by the advertising campaign, Knightley has little trouble persuading one to accept the spirited future queen as an action heroine no matter how much this interpretation seems like a sop to modern tastes. Striding around in wispy gowns and skin-baring leather battle gear when the men are bundled up against the chill, the striking young actress, with darkened hair here, rivets the attention whenever she’s onscreen, showing every sign of a real star in the making.
With the adamantly pagan Lancelot cast as Arthur’s intellectual adversary, Gruffudd makes an OK but overly subdued impression. Standout supporting turn comes from Ray Winstone, who makes Bors into a tempestuous force of nature. (Farrelly Brothers take note: Almost to the point of distraction, Winstone, with his bulk, buzz-cut and manic energy, is a virtual dead-ringer here for Curly of the Three Stooges.)
Also terrific is Stellan Skarsgard as the fearsome Saxon leader Cerdic, bedecked with long blond locks and beard, and Til Schweiger is a fine match as his less capable son.
Fuqua’s direction fuses the tale’s physical and mental elements in muscular, vigorous fashion, largely without the bombast that is often part and parcel of this sort of picture. Dominant set is an impressive Roman fortress along Hadrian’s Wall, Penny Rose’s costumes are nicely detailed, and lushly rugged Irish locations are enshrouded in atmospheric fog, smoke and snow. Idziak’s lensing is dominated by blues, blacks and earth tones. Composer Hans Zimmer has been down this road before, giving the score an overly familiar sound, especially with the impressionistic female vocal wailings.