Science fiction and fantasy                                            

A Knight's Tale

directed by Brian Helgeland

Before there were pop stars or movie stars, and before football was even invented, there were knights. They had to do something for entertainment in between battles, so they charged at each other on horseback and smashed huge wooden sticks over themselves. Jousting was the old rock 'n' roll.

A Knight's Tale dispenses with historical accuracy, telling the tale of a peasant's attempt to better himself. When Sir Ulrich Lichenstein of Gelders croaks, his small entourage are left without income. One of them, Will Thatcher, persuades the others to let him wear the dead knight's armour and ride in his place in the tournament. The snag is that only nobles are allowed to enter these things, so Will has to hide his identity. They may be able to get away with it this once, but how can they do it again?

The plot doesn't have a great deal in common with the story of the same name by Chaucer. The original Canterbury Tales were by no means stuffy, prudish and inaccessible. Yet they sometimes come across that way because they're written in Middle English, which is very nearly a foreign language. Customs and mores have changed and this all makes it harder for a modern reader to understand. It's high time for a translation, but this film isn't it.

Chaucer in the film is a real dude. He's another character rather than the narrator, and the first time we see him he is butt naked. Despite this he's as brazen and forthright as ever. He agrees to help by providing William with patents of nobility, if William will help him in return.

So William has the title and the skill he needs to compete, and starts to win tournaments. His fame spreads and he catches the eye of love interest Shannyn Sossamon as the Lady Jocelyn, who is also being pursued by Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). We know he's a ruthless villain because he wears more black than Edward the Black Prince. He wants Jocelyn as a trophy wife, and he's unbeaten on the jousting field. It's a plot that throws up few real surprises before the end, but has a lot of fun in getting there.

The soundtrack includes Queen, David Bowie and Thin Lizzie: completely the wrong era, but entirely the right feeling. It sends a shiver down the spine in all the right places, and I can't imagine some Gregorian chant having that effect. There's a fabulous overhead view of London with all the rows of half-timbered houses. The look is bold and colourful, with plenty of visual gags. Thankfully there's no gross-out humour, and the comedy in general is relatively subtle. After all, this is a PG.

A Knight's Tale is almost a fantasy, in that it has shaken off all the traces of grim and gritty realism. It does the romance thing without being too sentimental, and the fighting thing without oodles of ketchup. Above all it's lighthearted and fun, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Of the actors, only Heath Ledger is really famous, the rest are less so. Paul Bettany played a youthful, energetic and attention-hungry Geoffrey Chaucer, nothing like the stuffy and difficult character you might imagine if you've struggled through Chaucer at school, but far more watchable instead. Obviously the money was spent where it should have been for once, which is to say on the script. It has paid off and this is the most entertaining medieval film to be made for a long time.

Film Details

Year: 2001

Categories: Films

  Kids     Fantasy

Classification: PG

If you like this, try:

The Brothers Grimm cover    

The Brothers Grimm by Terry Gilliam
This is one fairy tale that defies our expectations.

5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson