Rock of ages
Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale gets off to an appealing start. The director sets his story in 14th-century Europe, but it isn’t a Europe you’ll find in any of the history books. The slangy opening titles tell us that jousting is the entertainment phenomenon of the age; people come from miles around to cheer their favorites. Just when we’re beginning to think that Helgeland is making a medieval tournament sound like the World Wrestling Federation, he takes that comparison one step further. He takes us to the tournament ground itself, with royals, nobles, commons and peasants standing around pounding whump-whump WHUMP! whump-whump WHUMP and singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
The moment is simultaneously amusing and evocative; I suspect “We Will Rock You” is one of those songs that everyone remembers vividly the first time they heard it. Helgeland is letting us know that A Knight’s Tale will never be recommended viewing for any seminars in the sociology of the Middle Ages, and that he’s proud to say so.
The hero of the film is William (Heath Ledger), squire to the itinerant jouster Sir Ector. When Sir Ector sits down under a tree to rest during a small-time tournament and quietly dies, William, in desperation and with the connivance of his fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), dons his master’s armor and wins the paltry purse. Roland and Wat want to take the money and run, but William has more ambition. With the help of an unemployed writer named Geoff Chaucer (Paul Bettany), an expert forger of identification papers, William hits the circuit as Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland.
After a few tournaments, William acquires a fervent cheering section chanting “Ul-rich! Ul-rich!” at every match. He also gains a fair lady to win (Shannyn Sossamon) and an arrogant villain to overcome, Sir Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). But A Knight’s Tale acquires something else along the way, like a pesky infection: the film starts taking itself much too seriously.
Imagine a movie that starts out jokey and flippant, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then gradually loses its comic chops and tries to morph into Rocky. Without sitting through the film again, I can’t say exactly where this process begins, but I remember clearly where the turnover was complete: it was in the scene where William sneaks incognito into the poor quarter of London to visit the father he hasn’t seen in years, and finds that the old man is now—sob!—blind. As Heath Ledger and Christopher Cazenove (as William’s weathered old father) went into their emotional clinch, I thought of the similar father-son reunion midway in The Truman Show. There, the scene was double-edged, thanks to the layered direction of Peter Weir and the comic genius of Jim Carrey—it poked fun at the schmaltz while invoking it.
But Helgeland is a one-track director and Ledger is a one-track actor. They can handle comedy or drama, but trying to mix the two, let alone any dusting of irony, overtaxes their resources. So, as William/Ulrich’s romance with Jocelyn and his conflict with Sir Adhemar intensify, the early playful tone goes down the tubes and A Knight’s Tale becomes a routine live-your-dream feel-gooder. There’s all the difference in the world between Helgeland’s opening with “We Will Rock You”—frisky, boisterous—and his closing with “We Are the Champions,” which is as solemnly sentimental as a closing ceremony at the Olympics.
The film hits some graceful notes in the first half. The highlight of the whole film comes in a dance at a post-game banquet; what begins as a sort of medieval minuet gradually breaks loose into a get-down strut to David Bowie’s “Golden Years.” (Shannyn Sossamon’s dance training shows itself here, and Heath Ledger doesn’t do half bad himself.) But it’s the last flicker of originality before Helgeland settles down into a run-of-the-mill triumph of the little guy with a big dream.
For just a while there, Helgeland’s own dream seemed a little bigger than that.