Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgard, Ray Winstone, Joel Edgerton, Mads Mikkelsen, Til Schweiger, Hugh Dancy, Stephen Dillane, Ray Stevenson
Plot: Arthur (Owen) leads a group of Roman mercenaries on a final mission to rescue a crucial Roman family from the invading Saxons.
The pitch of Antoine Fuqua’s take on the mythical legend of King Arthur is to suck the fantasy element out of the narrative and portray his Knights of the Round Table as gritty, real-life Roman mercenaries. Allegedly based upon archaeological findings that suggest the events of the film were somewhat true, Arthur is not a brave King, but a soldier forced into serving the Roman armies from a young age. His knights aren’t gallant heroes, but boisterous mercenaries fighting against their will. An early scene which sees the Knights take out a Celtic raid in a gory and bloody fashion sets aside any notion that this will be a film about courteous warriors and fair princesses.
While this film has been slated for moving away from the romanticism that might have made this film a little easier to swallow, the actual premise intrigues me. It is good fun watching this down-to-earth take on old-fashioned heroes. I never pictured Ray Winstone’s cockney bruiser ever handling the role of a chivalrous nobleman before this film. Yes, there are flaws to this movie that stop it from being as good as we want it to be. For a start, there are seven Knights to be portrayed on-screen here and not enough screen-time to do anyone justice. The film puts its focus, predictably on King Arthur and Lancelot, the most common of the knights. Out of the remaining characters, only really the mysterious Mads Mikkelsen and the comical Ray Winstone stick in the memory. The rest of the knights get a few amusing quips but are mainly characterised by the famous actors playing them. Sadly, even Arthur and Lancelot, arguably, could do with a better adaptation. The script suggests that this is a film designed to wow with performances, yet we were never going to get that with Clive Owen. Owen handles Arthur like he is on-stage, diving into the dialogue with ferocious gusto. But there is nothing behind his speech. He dramatically declares his woes on the audience, but few scenes actually hit home. There are a few dead moments, like Owen begging his God to take his life instead of his men, that you feel were intended to be an early example of show-stopping acting, the kind of scene that solidified the hero as a worthy protagonist, but on Clive Owen, the drama just isn’t there. In a film with solid actors – and despite the weak parts, stellar casting is this movie’s saving grace – Clive Owen lets the team down. Ioan Gruffudd is better as Lancelot, playing against type as the charming fighter, but the script is lacking. His dialogue is delivered with much better captivity than Owen’s, but the depth is hollow. Lancelot doesn’t truly have too much of a story, other than a knight without anywhere to call home. The crux of the narrative outside of the fighting is a love triangle with Keira Knightley’s Guinevere. Knightley is also a strong casting choice, enjoying a career peak, back when her simpering love interests actually did something, but the tepid chemistry behind her and her co-stars means that the romance side of the story never truly takes off. As a result, no matter how good King Arthur gets, it has to shoulder an awful lot of baggage.
Thankfully, there is more than enough to make up for the narrative flaws. Fuqua’s tale might have aged poorly, but in terms of a Dark Ages actioner, it is up there with a must watch. The battle sequences, especially if you’ve got your hand on the even bloodier Director’s Cut, are glorious fun, the editing team working wonders as they cut from fighter to fighter. The benefit of having a bloated cast suddenly works out, as the clashes never feel old. As a duel between Mikkelsen and Skarsgard begins to get old, we can jump over to see Keira Knightley and her female woads take on a Saxon brute. The busy nature of Fuqua’s direction style feels at home in the middle of a battlefield, as we get a sense of the hectic atmosphere of being in the middle of a fight. It even covers up that pesky plot hole of the nameless warriors not getting in the way of two important characters meeting in the battleground, because the action is too quick-paced to make it an issue. And, at the end of the day, aren’t these moments why you came to this film in the first place? King Arthur isn’t perfect, but it sure is entertaining when it needs to be.
Final Verdict: A clunky script and a duff lead work against King Arthur, but there is still fun to be had in this gritty re-imagining of the Knights of the Round Table.