In 5th century Britain (the Dark Ages, not the Middle Ages a 1,000 years later that are the traditional setting of this legend), the occupying Romans are close to pulling of the southern part of the island. A small band of Sarmatian knights who had completed 15 years forced service in the imperial Roman army, are due to be given their freedom. Led by half Roman half Brit Artorius Castus - Arthur, (Clive Owen) - they have one last assignment: to save an important Roman family living north of Hadrian's Wall from the advancing, deadly Saxons. The dangerous task brings Arthur and his closest friend Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) face to face with Merlin (Stephen Dillane), the inspirational leader of the pagan tribes, with the talented archer Guinevere (Keira Knightley) - and finally with Saxon leader, the fearsome Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard). The bloody battle convinces Arthur he should remain in England and help unite its people in peace and freedom.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's a pleasant surprise that Jerry Bruckheimer and Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur takes a serious look at the legend, thanks to writer David Franzoni, whose research into the background comes up with a gritty, gripping and muscly film. There is nothing of the legendary flim flam Camelot here, the sun hardly shines, the knights are weary and ragged. Imagine Ray Walstone as a knight, whose Bors is a hard drinking, larrikin figure with 11 bastard children (same poor lass).
Indeed, Bors provides the only light relief in this otherwise darkly fascinating film, in which a primitive Britain (its weather already dreadful) has yet to find its national unity or identity. Franzoni's research made him push the timeframe back to the 5th century, although the rather helpful production notes on the film (Coming Soon, promises the website kingarthurmovie.com) explain that all the sources for Arthur date from several hundred years after he would have died, making it impossible to get a fix on him - if he even lived as a single person. But there is enough to suggest that there was a man who led the Britons to victory against the Saxons around the end of the fifth century.
So there is just enough valid history in this screenplay to ground the film and provide a timeframe for the action. The central story is entirely about the emotional, spiritual as well as very physical journey of Arthur from a Roman soldier to England's first King - by popular request, if not by blue blood. That's not a bad storyline. Battles rage inside our hero as well as on the bloodied fields of England.
Unavoidably, the Anglo cast sprout a scattering of accents, from Winstone's ribald cockney to the sophisticated sounds of Knightley's Guinevere. Clive Owen goes for a vaguely nondescript accent which doesn't grate, and makes a ruggedley dark and handsome Arthur, satisfying conflicted and yet authoritative enough to carry of this larger than life character. He makes Arthur human, but enlarges him with the kind of natural nobility of spirit that we can readily accept as the source of his appeal and command. Stellan Skarsgard's growling-whisper delivery is a clever device to make his Saxon brute even more menacing - and the accent seems perfectly in pitch with his character.
There is also the occasional use of the ancient language of the island's pagans, and the Roman characters speak with Italian accents. (I always harp on this issue, because the sound of voices can be as powerful as music in subliminal messages to our perception of films.)
There's much to enjoy in the film, including the way Franzoni imagines Guinevere's story; rescued by the knights from a dungeon in the Roman family home north of the Wall, she is a useful member of the extended group of fighters, skilled with the bow and arrow. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) lusts after her from afar, and I wont spoil the romantic subplot with any other details.
The film's ending is satisfying in every sense - except one. Incomprehensibly, the 5,000 year old Stonehenge (a wonderful idea for the setting) is made to seem located on a cliff overlooking the sea, presumably the English Channel. This is taking poetic licence, or wishful thinking, a tad too far; it's nowhere near the sea. As one snotty English friend quipped, "yeah, but that's where a Hollywood producer and a Black American director would like it to be . . ."
And if that's their worst excess or error, no wonder I am pleasantly surprised. Fuqua, whose films include The Replacement Killers (1998) and Training Day (2001), has used every bit of Franzoni's deep research, including Franzoni's respect for the material, to give depth and texture to this historic drama.
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NEXT WEEK: Interview with IOAN GRUFFUDD
KING ARTHUR (M)
CAST: Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffudd, Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Hugh Dancy, Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson, Keira Knightley, Stephen Dillane, Stellan Skarsgård
PRODUCER: Jerry Bruckheimer
DIRECTOR: Antoine Fuqua
SCRIPT: David Franzoni
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Slawomir Idziak
EDITOR: Conrad Buff, Jamie Pearson
MUSIC: Hans Zimmer
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dan Weil
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 15, 2004