Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Aiden Gillen, Djimon Hounsou, Freddie Fox, Eric Bana, Mikael Persbrandt, Tom Wu.
The legend of King Arthur, his magical sword and the fabulous kingdom of Camelot has been told many times in the movies, from Disney’s animated 1963 film The Sword In The Stone, through to the musical Camelot, the comical Monty Python And The Holy Grail, First Knight, and, of course, John Boorman’s visually stunning and slick 1981 classic Excalibur. Now British director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes, etc) gives us his somewhat contemporary take on the legend of King Arthur, and it is something of a mess. With his customary swagger and rock ‘n’ roll sensibility Ritchie and his team of screenwriters take enormous liberties with the mythology of this once and future king. He turns Arthur into a streetwise urchin and something of a medieval gangster with his posse.
King Arthur is intended as an origins story, and it seems to have been heavily influenced by the more gritty style of Game Of Thrones. There is no Merlin here, one of the quintessential elements of Arthurian legend, but there is plenty of magic here, courtesy of a female witch known as the Mage (played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey). But this is essentially a reinvention of the legend for a more contemporary audience.
When the film opens, Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon (an underused Eric Bana) leads his army against the forces of the evil magician Mordred, who is keen to destroy Camelot. With his magical sword Excalibur, Uther manages to vanquish him and save the kingdom. But soon afterwards his ambitious, scheming and treacherous brother Vortigren (Jude Law) kills Pendragon, who is magically turned into a rock with the sword embedded inside. Only his true heir will be able to pull the sword from the stone.
Arthur is the boy king robbed of his birthright. A bit like another legendary person who was destined to lead his people to freedom and deliver them from oppression, the baby Arthur was cast adrift in a boat by his father just before he was killed. He washes up in the city of Londinium, where he is raised in a brothel. Arthur is a roguish ruffian, a streetwise kid, a bit like Oliver Twist.
Meanwhile, Vortigern rules over the kingdom with a repressive reign of terror. He tries to consolidate the power promised him by the mysterious sirens that dwell in the underground river beneath Camelot. But to achieve this, he has to kill Arthur and take the power of the sword. It is only when the river dries up and the sword in the stone is exposed does Vortigern set out to try and find Arthur and kill him. Arthur manages to pull the sword from the stone, but then has to evade Vortigern’s clutches until he can learn to harness the power of Excalibur. Arthur assembles a band of rebels to overthrow Vortigern and his army of blacklegs.
The film has been somewhat grandiosely described as a cross between The Lord Of The Rings and Ritchie’s own Snatch. It is full of Ritchie’s typical visual flair and kinetic energy, and has been edited to within an inch of its life in that frenetic style preferred by Ritchie’s regular collaborator James Herbert. But the action sequences are rendered almost unwatchable as Herbert prefers a visual style that seems more suited to video games, or someone with ADHD or a short attention span.
But the action is also overloaded on special effects, although here the digital effects and green screen work seems second rate at times. With lots of digitally created giant snakes and other fantastical beasts, it is actually quite ugly visually. Ritchie and his cinematographer John Mathieson, who has collaborated with Ridley Scott on many films and who also shot Ritchie’s The Man From UNCLE, gives the material a rather bleak and dark surface.
Ritchie has always been a brash director with a distinctive visual style. Here and his co-writers Lionel Wigram and Jody Harold turn the well-known Arthurian lore on its head. The result is a rather inert, dull and visually ugly film. King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword will displease the puritans and those who treat Arthurian legend with a bit more reverence, but teenage boys will probably like it for its video game like energy and fantasy elements. Ritchie’s trademark geezer gangster dialogue jars in this medieval setting. And apart from the Mage, Ritchie tends to treat his female characters with a healthy dose of misogyny.
Charlie Hunnam (from tv series Sons Of Anarchy, etc) underwent a rigorous training program to build up his physique in order to play Arthur. This is a fairly physical role at times, but he acquits himself well. He brings a more contemporary feel to the character. Law hams it up and chews the scenery as the villainous Vortigern, but his character is not a patch on Alan Rickman’s scene stealing sheriff from Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves. The cast includes Aiden Gillen (from the Maze Runner franchise, etc), Djimon Hounsou, Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt, who plays a Viking warrior named Greybeard, and a brief appearance from soccer star David Beckham, who plays one of the soldiers guarding the sword in the stone.
King Arthur supposedly cost something like $175 million, but has been a box office failure. The film was supposed to be the first instalment in a new fantasy franchise featuring Arthur, but given the lukewarm reception it seems that future sequels will be stillborn.
But when the ultimate Ritchie filmography is eventually compiled, King Arthur will probably sit somewhere near the bottom, just above his misguided and dire remake of Swept Away, which starred his then wife Madonna. Time to put the sword back in the stone and move on!