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Posts Tagged ‘King Arthur’

Sometimes one can’t help but come to the conclusion that being a film director is a grotesquely over-remunerated job. There are, admittedly, some people who never seem to stop, and have multiple films coming out every year – you know what I mean, your Ridley Scotts and Steven Soderberghs. But for every one of them you seem to have several people who make a film (not even an especially big or successful one), then apparently vanish off the face of the Earth for years at a time. Just what kind of money are they making?

I am moved to reflect on this by the career of Joe Cornish, who started off, film-wise, as a friend of Edgar Wright: he was a zombie extra in Shaun of the Dead and together they co-wrote some of the early drafts of Ant-Man, along with the Spielberg Tintin movie. In 2011 he released his directorial debut, Attack the Block, a film which was nice enough but one of those that everyone else seemed to like much more than me; subsequent developments have not really inclined me to want to revisit and reassess it. And since then? Nothing much, so far as I can tell – at least, not until late last year when the first trailers for his new film The Kid Who Would Be King started to appear.

I know, I know: I am late to the party on this one. For a long while I was doubtful about seeing it at all – I first saw the trailer in front of Johnny English 3, along with that for Robin Hood, and I believe my comment to my companion was ‘Just how many classic English myths can you screw up in one set of trailers?’ But the reviews, to be fair, have been quite positive, and there are people on this film whose work I usually enjoy, so I decided to give it a chance.

The title, as any fule kno, is a riff on Rudyard Kipling rather than anything actually Arthurian, which should tell you everything you need to know about the script’s cafeteria-style approach to this particular myth cycle. A rather nicely animated opening sequence fills in the back-story for today’s under-educated youngsters, although it does the usual thing of conflating the Sword in the Stone with Excalibur and also writes Mordred out of the story. Soon enough we find ourselves in contemporary London, capital, apparently, of a ‘divided, lost, leaderless’ nation (can’t really argue with that, alas). Twelve-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis – yes, it’s Son of Gollum) is having a tough time, facing bullying and harassment at school and trying to cope with the absence of his father (who’s presumably off doing the mo-capping on Shazam! or another big effects movie).

Everything changes, of course, when Alex stumbles into a building site while being chased by his tormentors and finds a sword stuck into a block of concrete. Naturally, he draws it forth and discovers it to be the fabled Excalibur, magic weapon of the true High King of Britain, Arthur. Soon enough Merlin (Angus Imrie, mostly) has also popped up, mostly to do the exposition, and reveals that an imminent eclipse will mark the moment when the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will attempt to conquer the world with an army of undead hell-knights. It’s up to Alex to gather a new set of Knights of the Round Table and see off this terrible menace! Assuming they can get the time off school, anyway.

I have no idea about Joe Cornish’s personal situation, but this has something of a Time Bandits feel to it: you know, that moment in someone’s career when they realise they want to do something that their kids can watch and enjoy. Certainly this is much more family-friendly than Attack the Block, for all that it is recognisably the work of the same creative sensibility. It works hard to shoot for the same kind of audience that made both the Harry Potter franchise and Lord of the Rings such substantial successes, particularly in terms of its visual style: probably the most impressive thing about it is Cornish’s deft handling of big CGI action sequences – there is nothing much wrong with these at all, and one wonders why Cornish hasn’t been in more demand for a big studio project.

Given Cornish’s background as a comedian, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movie also contains some very good jokes – for instance, Merlin needs magic potions containing all kinds of foul ingredients to revivify himself, but finds modern-day fast food a more than adequate substitute. When the film is moving along, it is fun, exhilarating stuff, but the problem is that it seldom stays in motion for very long – Cornish conscientiously includes a big learning-and-growing character arc for the benefit of the young audience’s moral development, but in addition to being slightly predictable this is kind of applied with a trowel, when a lighter touch would have been much preferable. This does slow the film down a bit, and it feels distinctly stretched as a result: at one point, it looks like everything has been satisfactorily resolved, but then there’s a plot twist and the film continues on for another twenty minutes.

Oh well. I am pleased to report the child acting is mostly acceptable, and Denise Gough supports well as Alex’s mother. I am trying to think of a way of commenting on Angus Imrie’s performance as Merlin which does not feel gratuitously cruel, but it is certainly fair to say that he has received the bummest deal of anyone on this movie: he plays Merlin in his disguise as a teenager (supposedly; Imrie does look a bit too old for this), but for key moments the wizard assumes a more traditional form and is played by Patrick Stewart. Stewart, needless to say, acts everyone else off the screen without even seeming to try that hard, but they can only afford to use him in a handful of scenes. Still, better than nothing.

In the end I found myself quite enjoying The Kid Who Would Be King, and feeling rather indulgent towards it: it is overlong, and it is really best not to think too hard about certain aspects of the plot, but in other ways this is a clever and imaginative movie that tells its story well. It seems, however, that the well of classic English mythology has been fouled by the likes of last year’s Robin Hood and the year before’s Guy Ritchie King Arthur film, for this new film has been a bit of a flop despite being much better than either of those. A shame: this is a fun, family-friendly film, and one hopes Joe Cornish will get another chance to show what he can do in the near future.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 5th 2004:

For all that it’s arguably the greatest English myth, I still think we’re waiting for the definitive movie version of the Arthurian legend. Now this isn’t a particularly easy story to fit into a two-hour movie, but that still doesn’t excuse most previous attempts being quite so dire (First Knight, this means you). And to be honest, I didn’t hold out much hope for Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, given he’s best known for contemporary urban thrillers, producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s best known for making overblown tripe, and the publicity campaign for it runs mostly along the lines of ‘Cor, what about that Keira Knightley eh? Phwoarr!

The new angle Fuqua’s opted for in his movie is to take a slightly more historically accurate approach to the tale. Set in the middle of the fifth century, the film finds Britain still a province of the Roman Empire, though this state of affairs about to change. As the story opens, Arthur (Clive Owen) is actually Artorius Castor, the Romano-British commander of a group of indentured heavy cavalry from Samatia on the other side of Europe – his warriors are battle-scarred hard-cases who just happen to have the same names as famous chivalric figures: Galahad, Gawain, Lancelot. But their period of service to Rome is almost over: Arthur dreams of returning there, while his men just want to go home.

But before this can happen, Rome demands one last service of them. With a Saxon invasion sweeping down from the north, the Romans are leaving the native Celts to their fate. But an influential Roman family must be rescued from the path of the Saxon advance – an incredibly dangerous mission that takes Arthur and his men out of their own territory and into the wilderness controlled by native British tribes in the sway of a sorcerer known as Merlin…

The small component of this movie’s publicity not devoted to Ms Knightley’s bone structure and glandular development (both are undeniably charming) mainly goes on about how this is the first historically accurate Arthurian movie, based on actual archaeological evidence. This would be a neat trick, as – to my understanding – all the physical evidence for an historical King Arthur would comfortably fit in an eggcup. Some degree of fabrication is inevitable, but even so, those unfortunates who put historical accuracy ahead of dramatic merit in the list of movie virtues will find lots to complain about here: the climactic battle (based on an historical event) occurs in the wrong place and wrong century, while the Saxon bad guys stomp around toting crossbows that didn’t appear in Britain for another six hundred years.

None of this would matter to me if the story itself was solid but the emphasis on (rather spurious) realism guts the Arthurian legend of most of its magic and potency. The round table makes it in, along with a new take on the Sword in the Stone (conflated, as usual, with Excalibur), but virtually all of the rest of the story is omitted: there’s precious little Merlin, no sign whatsoever of Morgan le Fey or Mordred, no Camelot, Lady of the Lake, or Grail quest… in short, almost none of the stuff you’d expect in a King Arthur movie.

To be honest, King Arthur reminded me most of a fairly recent take on another great British legend: the 80s Robin of Sherwood TV show. The resemblence is there in the mixture of soft-focus historical verisimilitude and low-key mysticism, and the occasionally lyrical score. Mark Ryan, a member of that show’s regular cast, is the fight choreographer here. Most of all, I suppose, the Sherwood connection is reinforced by the presence in King Arthur‘s cast of Ray Winstone, who memorably redefined Will Scarlet as a mixture of East End bully-boy and football hooligan. His performance here as Bors hits almost all of the same notes (Winstone is surely the only knight in history to go into battle armed with a brace of knuckledusters). It’s a terrific, vital turn, overshadowing the supposed stars of the film: Bors is the only character you really like or care about.

That’s not to say that this is a film that doesn’t owe heavy debts elsewhere: that it resembles Lord of the Rings is a no-brainer: it’s punctuated with long shots across primal landscapes and there’s a lot of fuss about whether or not the lead character will accept his monarchical destiny. There’s a tiny smidge of The Magnificent Seven in the presentation of Arthur and his boys, too. Thankfully, though, beyond some blockbuster silliness and a deeply duff villain (Stellan Skarsgard with a stupid accent), this bears very little resemblence to most of Jerry Bruckheimer’s other movies.

Now I’ve been mostly negative about this movie so far but I should make it clear that I actually really rather enjoyed it. The mixture of myth and Romano-British reality is novel and quite inventive, the film goes to some lengths to make the cultural divisions between Romans, Celts, and Saxons clear, most of the performances are fine, and there’s some impressive action – a battle on a frozen lake being a particular highlight. Admittedly Clive Owen (a low-key, metropolitan actor if ever there was one) seems a little ill-at-ease declaiming in his chainmail, but he livens up as the film goes on.

King Arthur isn’t the greatest rendition of the legend (that title still rests with Boorman’s Excalibur, a film with its own set of flaws), but it is a solidly put together, highly entertaining adventure. Perhaps the truth is that we don’t want to know the true story of King Arthur when the myth is so irresistible. But enough of it shines through to make this movie worth a look.

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