The Kid Who Would Be King

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Tom Taylor, Denise Gough, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart

Director: Joe Cornish

Writer: Joe Cornish


We live in increasingly cynical times and the idea that a noble medieval king like Arthur could possibly solve the innumerable problems facing the UK today in the age of Brexit is quite laughable. Yet that is in a sense what Joe Cornish’s newest film is about and with it he invites the viewer to consider the world as it is not through the wearied, sceptical eyes of an adult but through the innocent, eager eyes of a child. It harkens to a mythical time in Britain’s history when the whole country was united under the benevolent rule of a hero among men. In a short, animated prologue the film details the particulars of Arthur’s rule, taking care to emphasise that it was not his ability to slay monsters that made him a great king. What made Arthur a figure of such reverence was the chivalric code by which he upheld the principles of justice, honesty and honour. This was a king who treated his trusted knights as his equals, who made friends of his enemies and who inspired hope and unity in all who followed him. The legacy of Camelot has long since been lost to the world but will soon be unearthed once again by a pair of unlikely pre-teens living in contemporary London.

The Kid Who Would Be King is set in a world where everything is bad (“WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!” read the headlines on a local newsstand) and everyone has more or less resigned themselves to the prospect of a doomed future. The 12-year-old Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is all too familiar with the struggles of living in a world where the strong freely prey on the weak as he and his best mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are bullied at school. Living with his exasperated mother Mary (Denise Gough), struggling to make ends meet in the absence of the boy’s father, Alex identifies strongly with the likes of Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker, all of them orphans dreaming of adventure and destined to become great heroes. His favourite book as a young boy, as a matter of fact, was the anthology of Arthurian fables that his father left him before disappearing. On one fateful day as Alex and Bedders are being chased by their local bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), they stumble into a building site where they find an ancient sword sticking out of a solid concrete block. Alex pulls the sword out of the stone with ease, leading the two boys to conclude that this must be the legendary sword of Excalibur and that fate has decreed they must embark on some great quest in order to save Britain.

Soon Alex is visited by the great wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), who appears in the form of a teenager and poses as a pupil at the boys’ school under the cunning pseudonym of ‘Mertin’. An eccentric figure who’s liable to transform into an owl or his older self (played by Patrick Stewart) when he sneezes, he reveals to Alex and Bedders that the return of the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), Arthur’s greatest enemy, is imminent. It is Alex’s destiny to take his place as the king the country desperately needs right now and to vanquish Morgana before she can rise with her minions and unleash her wrath on the world. Suspecting that his estranged father might have a role to play in all this, Alex resolves to set out for Tintagel, the last place the two of them met and the supposed birth place of Arthur himself. Joining him on this quest, as well as Bedders and Merlin, are Lance and Kaye, whom Alex knights so that they might redeem themselves and help save Britain from peril. Along the way Merlin trains them in the ways of the greats knights of yore and presses upon them the chivalric code and its tenets of bravery, decency, and honour. If the kids fail to stand by this code and follow it to the letter, then their quest is already lost.

While there is plenty of action along the way, it should be clear from the word go that The Kid Who Would Be King is not a high-concept epic fantasy on the level of The Lord of the Rings. It’s more like if The Goonies or Stand By Me were made today and included a fair few moderate action scenes with modest special effects. This isn’t to say that we don’t get some sense of the grand scale and threatening stakes of the adventure they’ve embarked upon. Cornish treats us to sweeping shots of the English countryside, has the fellowship do battle with animated trees and CGI skeletons on horseback and there is even a climatic siege where the weathered fortress of Helm’s Deep is replaced with a London secondary school. Far from threatening to overwhelm frame after frame with endless masses of CGI like most of the blockbusters you’re likely to see these days, Cornish keeps things simple and clean and the film is stronger for it. It’s a style that enables them to emulate the heroic fantasies that the tale of King Arthur helped inspire while still allowing them to keep things light-hearted and childishly playful; more Narnia than Middle Earth.

The action doesn’t really matter so much as the quest itself. The film is, more than anything, about Alex’s journey of self-discovery. What makes this story work in an era where modernised takes on the Arthurian myth continuously fail (remember Legend of the Sword?) is the way in which it draws new morals from the old, familiar tales. For one thing, the film drops the feudalistic notion that nobility and greatness is borne from one’s birth. In the end it isn’t Alex’s blood or his parentage that makes him great, it’s the lessons that he learns on his journey and that fellowship he builds with his brothers and sisters in arms along the way. The movie is a celebration of community and its ability to overcome any threat through unity and co-operation. The ensemble, many of whom were young and untested actors as were those in Cornish’s previous film Attack the Block, do wonders to sell the idea as well as the fantasy of it all. I especially liked Chaumoo, who I think is destined to deliver a Samwise Gamgee performance for the ages one of these days, and Imrie, who commits to his role wholeheartedly. Together they’ve made a highly charming and enjoyable film and, while it’s still unlikely to solve the world’s problems, it can at least provide a couple of hours of escape and that’s nothing to turn your nose up at.

★★★★

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The Dark Tower

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel


I had high hopes for this one. I read The Dark Tower series as a teenager and have been waiting for an adaptation ever since (it was always my feeling that a TV series would have served the books better than a film, but hey, I’ll take what I can get). Stephen King started writing this series in the 80s and it took him decades to complete what he hoped would be his magnum opus. The idea was to write an epic series akin to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns that would serve as the centrepiece of his literary universe, and it is a superb read. The Dark Tower has since been trapped in development hell as different filmmakers from J.J. Abrams to Ron Howard have attempted to bring this extensive, complex narrative to life (with Javier Bardem attached to star at one point). All roads have thus led us here, to Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, a film which sadly leaves this decades-long journey unfulfilled.

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed. The Man in Black is Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer who seeks to destroy the Dark Tower, the structure at the centre of the universe protecting all the worlds from the evils outside. The Gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of an ancient order and the only man who can protect the Tower. A young boy called Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has visions of these two and of the Tower, visions that his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and therapist dismiss as dreams brought by the trauma of his father’s death. Believing his visions to be real and determined to learn their meaning, Jake follows them to an abandoned house where he discovers a portal to Mid-World, the world in which the Dark Tower stands, and there meets Roland. The Gunslinger takes the boy under his wing and together they must pursue the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the Tower and bringing all the worlds to ruin.

Having been in development for so long and subjected to reshoots following negative test screenings, I think most people who watch this film will be able to tell that this is the work of a studio. It is business-like in its approach and never takes any chances with the story. In the original book series, you are dropped straight into the desolate, fantastical land of Mid-World and follow a mysterious, morally ambiguous protagonist on an uncertain quest. Here the protagonist is a teenage boy in New York who discovers that he is the key to saving the universe. We know that he’s troubled because he speaks to psychiatrists and skips school but he has no real personality to speak of. His father is dead, paving the way for Roland to step in as his surrogate father, and he possesses abilities that he does not understand. He isn’t so much a character as he is a plot device, there to take the story wherever the studio feels it has to go and to prompt the exposition wherever the studio feels its needed.

The two best and most strongly defined characters are, not coincidentally, the two who most closely resemble their literary counterparts. Elba’s Roland is a melancholy warrior, haunted by the ghosts of his past, and he brings a strong sense of weight to the role. This is a man who has experienced pain and loss we can hardly fathom and has become cold and numb with time. The humanity that his surrogate son is supposed to inspire never quite hits home but I’m inclined to lay the blame with the script rather than the actor. McConaughey meanwhile hams it up as the Man in Black, but never so much that we cannot take him seriously as a villain. He walks that fine line between being eccentric and menacing and hits just the right balance. Casting these two is far and away the best thing this movie did and anytime these two came together, I felt like I was actually watching the Dark Tower movie I had been waiting to see. It makes me sad that their performances could not have been realised with a better script with a greater vision for King’s epic.

Most of the scenes that make up The Dark Tower seem like they were included simply because those are the scenes that you need in this kind of movie. When Jake discovers the portal in the abandoned house and activates it, the house comes alive and attacks him. There’s no build up or even much of a conclusion to this scene, it’s just something that happens and is then forgotten about as soon as it’s over. The movie’s crime isn’t that it’s terrible, but that it’s unimaginative and forgettable. The book series was often dark and strange and, while not all of its ideas worked, one of the things it had that this film did not was vision. The world King built is immense. The characters he created are iconic. The themes he explored are resonant. Here the studio decided to play it safe, making a generic movie with a simplified story, watered-down characters and a non-threatening PG-13 rating. The movie attempts to appease fans of King’s work while still appealing to a wider audience and it fails at both. It’s not as bad as I feared it would be, but it falls short of even my most conservative hopes.

★★