Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisby, Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillan, Jude Law, Eric Bana
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram
There have been many unlikely combinations in art between subject and style that have worked splendidly despite expectations and preconceptions. A Second World War Western by the director of Pulp Fiction? Excellent! A hip-hop/rap musical about the US’s first Secretary of the Treasury? A masterpiece! An absurd yet melancholic TV show about a horse who used to be a sitcom star? Incredible! So when I saw that Guy Ritchie of all people was going to take on the King Arthur mythos, I was ready to give it a chance. His style is one that I’ve enjoyed in other movies before and he already made it work with another unlikely subject in Sherlock Holmes, so maybe there was something to this idea. In this case though, it doesn’t work. This version of the British legend is so stupid, so silly, and so dull that I’m inclined to take the version with the coconuts, the Trojan Rabbit and the Knights Who Say Ni more seriously.
Many years ago in a great battle where Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) defended the kingdom of Camelot against the warlock Mordred, his treacherous brother Vortigern (Jude Law) orchestrated a coup and used dark magic to slay the king and seize the throne for himself. Uther’s son survives the usurpation and drifts away on a boat that ends up in Londinium. The boy is found and raised by prostitutes and grows to become Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a strong fighter and streetwise scoundrel. When a confrontation between Arthur and some Vikings goes badly, Arthur is taken by the king’s men and put on a ship to Camelot. There the Blacklegs have been forcing young men to try and pull out a sword stuck in a stone nearby. Arthur successfully removes the sword and is overwhelmed by its power. After he is subsequently taken prisoner and learns the truth of his heritage from Vortigern, a mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisby), an acolyte of Merlin (Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film), rescues him from his planned execution with the aid of the Uther’s former knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou). The mage and her team then enlists Arthur to embrace his legacy and help them overthrow Vortigern.
This movie takes pretty much the opposite approach to the Clive Owen film, which sought to depict a demystified, historically authentic King Arthur. Ritichie is instead more interested in modernising the myth and having some fun with it. This Arthur is less of a medieval nobleman and more of a 21st century lad, roughing it up and talking in slang. His crew is made up of other rough, tough misfits such as Back Lack (Neil Maskell) and Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and they are a multicultural bunch, complete with their own martial arts master in Kung Fu George (Tom Wu). They crack wise, get into fights, and plan their ruses the way the characters in Snatch would plan their heists. This is all fine in theory and Guy Ritchie is the kind of stylistically over-the-top director mad enough to pull it off. In theory, a contemporary King Arthur film with cockney banter, acrobatic, slow-motion sword fights and an array of enormous CGI creatures should’ve at least been good fun. The film however is anything but, and that is because it Ritchie exhibits absolutely zero restraint and moderation on his style.
It is one thing for a director to have a distinctive storytelling style that adds a fun, interesting twist to the narrative, it is another thing entirely when that style usurps the narrative. The movie is so overloaded with rapid edits, haphazard shifts in time and space, hectic mise-en-scène and blaring sounds that all the important things like story, dialogue and character get lost in the chaos. There are so many things happening all at once that nothing at all is happening. Nothing means anything in this film because nothing is allowed to sink in and be processed. Whether the film is being serious and trying to have an emotional impact, such as the moment when Arthur learns who he is and what happened to his father, or when the movie is being silly and cheeky and trying to have a laugh, such as when Arthur delivers one of those stories within a story that Ritchie likes so much recounting his encounter with the Vikings, it all rushes past like a blur. The film just doesn’t know when to stop and let a moment play out or when to let a crucial piece of information or plot development linger just long enough for the viewer to absorb it. It’s like Guy Ritchie made a 10-hour movie and then screened the whole thing in fast-forward.
It is entirely possible that the reason Ritchie went so overboard with his style is because the movie itself offered little else of substance or worth. The story is so determined to keep moving forward that it never actually gets anywhere. When Arthur lifts Excalibur from the stone and discovers that he is the heir to the throne, the objective from that point on is making Arthur the king. That’s fine except it feels more like an obligation for the plot than a progression, considering that we never really see Arthur displaying qualities of heroism or leadership. It doesn’t help that Hunnam plays him as a smirking rogue; I had a harder time rooting for him than I did for Jamie Campbell Bower’s rather bland take on the character in the otherwise solid Starz series from a few years back. Jude Law can be quite entertaining in his scenery-chewing role as the villainous, slightly camp Vortigern but that’s about it. When a movie understands its story so little that it ends up detracting from one of its pivotal moments with an embarrassingly distracting celebrity cameo for the ages, you know you’re in trouble.