It’s the Dark Ages, and the Roman Empire is in control of roughly half of England. The Roman legionnaire Artorius, often called Arthur (Clive Owen), is commander of a unit of Knights from the country of Sarmatia. The conscript Knights have served Arthur and Rome for fifteen years in battle against the rebellious Woads, led by Merlin (Stephen Dillane), and are on the verge of being freed when a Roman bishop (Ivano Marescotti) orders Arthur to take them north of Hadrian’s Wall on one last mission. An army of Saxons is pillaging its way south, and a friend of the Catholic Church is to be evacuated.
At the village of Marcus Honorius (Ken Stott), Arthur discovers Marcus’ priests torturing captured Woads, including the mysterious Guinevere (Keira Knightley), in the name of saving their souls. Arthur frees them just before the Saxons arrive, and the evacuation becomes a race against time and the elements to get Marcus, his family and the villagers back beyond the Wall before the Saxon leader, Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard), and his army catch up with them…
Every so often, modern Hollywood churns out a movie billed as either a true story or based on one, and this film has been billed loudly and widely as the true story behind the legend. The (supposed) factual basis for this latest film on the legend of King Arthur is based on rather distant history, so any sacrifices it makes in the name of sensationalism are less likely to stand out (at least to the average cinemagoer).
Unfortunately, said films often grossly distort or sensationalise the facts they’re based on. Hollywood wasn’t always guilty of this; as an example, compare Tora! Tora! Tora! with Pearl Harbour (another Jerry Bruckheimer film). Although it can be argued that playing fast-and-loose with the facts allows for a better human-interest story, it seems as though Hollywood is unwilling to combine accuracy with human interest. (In all fairness, Tora! Tora! Tora! was rather dry.)
Surprisingly enough for a Jerry Bruckheimer pic, King Arthur is rather subdued, perhaps in an attempt to give the “true story” the gravitas it theoretically merits. Unfortunately, the result is too subdued. I spent most of the film waiting for the two main leads to evince more than a superficial emotion, and it just didn’t happen. The accent trouble in this film doesn’t particularly help. Although Guinevere is now a Woad warrior maiden in this “true story”, she retains her plum-in-mouth Londoner’s accent, and any nuance that was meant to be carried in Arthur’s lines is unfortunately lost in Clive Owen’s monotone. Even Swedish Stellan Skarsgard, who really looks the part of a Saxon warrior chieftain, has an accent that sounds American.
Accent trouble unfortunately isn’t a real cover for the flat performances of Owen and Knightley here. It’s a shame, really, because both have done better. The only time they emote and by extent make us empathise with their characters is during the film’s fight scenes, which themselves get disjointed and a little too drawn out, even if they are largely fun to watch.
If there’s anyone who deserves top marks for making the best of a dodgy lot, it’s definitely Ioan Gruffud, who plays a charming-yet-smouldering Lancelot to the hilt (both of ’em). This is Ioan’s first big Hollywood starring role, and I’m hoping to heck it’s not his last. Props must also go to the other Sarmatian Knights, including Ray Winstone and Australia’s own Joel Edgerton; all six seem to have been given the opportunity to actually enjoy their parts, unlike Owen and Knightley, who are often too busy debating the fine points of religion, duty and freedom with all and sundry.
It’s interesting to see a rather strong anti-Catholic subtext in this film – I kept trying to figure out whether it was a stab at organised religion (contrasted against Arthur’s strong personal Christian faith) or just part of the period portrayal. It’ an interesting irony that the Catholics are almost worse than the Saxons in an era when the Christians were usually the ones being persecuted, but I thought the Inquisition days were a little later on.
Ultimately, though, I kept waiting for Something To Happen in this film, and while the ending yields a few surprises, nothing ever really did. Overall, I’d save King Arthur until it hits rental; while there’s nothing really wrong with it, there’s not enough right with it, quite possibly not enough to justify the price of a cinema ticket.