A Knights Tale
Eager to rise above his lowly station in life, 14th-century squire William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) passes himself off as royalty in his crusade to become a jousting champion.
Writer-director-producer Brian Helgeland clearly did not prepare A Knight's Tale as a lesson on the medieval class struggle. He set out to create Monday Night Jousting with this raucous but routine tale of a talented rookie trying to overcome his humble origins. William gets his big break when his master, an over-the-hill knight, dies just before a major jousting tournament. Disguised as the knight, William takes home the big prize, but rather than sell the trophy for much-needed food, William persuades reluctant comrades Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) to fund his bid for glory. Fame and fortune soon follow as William--now posing as Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein--becomes an overnight sensation and his valiant ways rock the establishment--to the tune of modern-day Queen songs. His reputation spreads thanks to the fanciful yarns spun by unemployed writer Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany). William's exploits win him the hand of fair maiden Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), but his newfound fame threatens to unravel at the hands of his rival, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell).
Ledger certainly looks the part of a knight in shining armor. He's handsome, athletic and able to take a hit. Yet he's blandly heroic. He's the Troy Aikman of jousting. He blends into the muddy background whenever the wonderful and eloquent Benton--a Chaucer with all the flamboyance of a 14th-century Don King--stands up to immortalize the constantly tongue-tied William. Beautiful but emotionally vacant newcomer Sossamon certainly doesn't bring out much warmth or passion in Ledger. Sewell may possess the arrogance and indignation of a champion on the verge of being usurped, but he's rarely given the chance to display his worth as the opponent Ledger endeavors to beat. Part of the problem lies with Helgeland refusing to let his heroes and villains surprise us. Of course Ledger will take a beating to prove his love to Sossamon. Of course Sewell will resort to cowardly means to thwart Ledger. Of course Sossamon will remain devoted to Ledger when he is revealed as a fraud. There's little joy to be found in the obvious manner in which they act.
Helgeland allows the lances to shatter fast and furiously. The action gallops along, regardless of whether Ledger's suited up and ready to knock his opponent flat on his back. The jousting scenes crackle with Super Bowl-style tension. Yet this is not Gladiator. This is good, clean family fun with little blood spilled. Helgeland tries to make a statement about class and equality, but it gets lost in the roar of the crowd, and the film flounders in its bewildering use of musical anachronisms: Ledger trains to War's "Low Rider" and sweeps Sossamon off her feet while bopping to David Bowie's "Golden Years." It's mildly amusing at first to watch a crowd clap to Queen's "We are the Champions," but by the time the crowd performs the Wave, the gimmick unravels as nothing more than a distraction. Helgeland's far more successful when drawing true parallels between the athlete, his fans and the sporting rituals of yesterday and today.
So what if Ledger is all work and no play? The knight games are fun and frantic, and that's what really counts.