MOVIE REVIEW – Forget the original Arthurian legend, the book by Sir Thomas Malory or the excellent movie of John Boorman, Excalibur from 1981. This King Arthur has almost nothing to do with the original materiel, it’s dark fantasy story, or it even feels like a script for a video game RPG, like Dragon Age, or similar in some aspects to Game of Thrones. If you can live with this, you might give Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur a chance. I gave a chance to it, and I liked it.
If you watched former Guy Ritchie movie by now, you might have an idea, what to expect from the man. He won’t direct a classical movie, no matter, what’s the story, or theme of the movie, and that includes such classic such gems of the British history and literature, as the Arthurian legends. But let’s face: do we needed another Excalibur? Or another First Knight? Or can we accept, that for a change we have a different Arthur here, with a more fantasy-like setting, which has indeed not much to do with the original material?
My Dragon Age movie
To be honest, I was not expecting much from Guy Ritchie’s take on Arthur (it was clear from the trailers, that it will be very different from my personal favorite fantasy movie: Excalibur), but I was somewhat pleasantly surprised.
Yes, there are some phony-looking special-effects sequences of giant marauding elephants and magical eel creatures to get to. Yes, it’s true, that they don’t help the story; what seems to matter is that Ritchie had enough money at his disposal to conjure them, so why not spend it?
Yes, the story and characters indeed make you think of Game of Thrones meets Dragon Age: Inquisition, with a conflict of the mages against the king’s army and a sorceress who seems straight out of Dragon Age. The main character, Arthur is a wise-ass, street-smart owner of a brothel (making you think of Little Finger from Game of Thrones) who is again, far from the young, serious sidekick boy raised by a local nobleman as in Sir Thomas Mallory’s book and the 1981 Excalibur movie.
As a matter of fact, there is no canonical King Arthur story. In fact, there are so many variations that a filmmaker can cobble together the iconic elements and come up with whatever he or she wants – which is essentially what Ritchie has done.
This is Guy Ritchie’s vision, and every critic already knew what to expect, so I honestly don’t understand the score being so low on Metacritic.
The Legend of Camelot in a different way
Since the eventual goal is to tell The Legend of Camelot According to Guy Ritchie, Arthur’s beginnings seem like a good place to start. When the action begins, Arthur is just a child. His father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) rules Camelot and takes down an invasion force led by the dreaded mage Mordred. But vanquishing the danger from outside doesn’t protect him from the rot within as his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), orchestrates a bloody coup that leaves Uther and his wife dead. Arthur, smuggled out aboard a lifeboat, becomes an orphan in Londinium, where he is raised in a brothel.
Twenty years later, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), is brought to Camelot, like all males of his age, to see if he can pull the sword Excalibur from a stone – a test instituted by Vortigern to find his lost nephew. When Arthur completes the task, he is immediately imprisoned and scheduled for execution. However, planning to kill the rightful king and completing the job are different matters. Aided by the mage Guinevere (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), the knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), and the small-fingered Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), Arthur escapes and joins a group dedicated to removing Vortigern from power – a task that will require might, magic, and a little luck.
Ritchie’s style is evident during the whole movie. Exposition-laden breaks are minimal with the focus being on keeping things moving. The pace is relentless and, even when not a lot happens, Ritchie uses every trick in his book to stave off audience restlessness. However, at times, he overreaches. His tendency to employ flash-forwards to propel the narrative forward is more distracting than visionary. It’s unnecessarily flashy and more likely to take the viewer out of the moment than provide for greater immersion. There are, of course, numerous battle scenes, all of which are skillfully choreographed. Ritchie also doesn’t allow things to get bogged down with subplots. One side-quest, which has Arthur battling all manner of giant animals, takes less than five minutes of screen time.
The film’s look is one of its assets. Visually, it’s an easy match for the darker, seedier portions of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth and proves to be one of the best realized early Medieval settings captured on film. The CGI is well integrated so, even when there are monsters (like the huge battle elephants), magic, and massive armies, it never seems like we’re looking at something animated. Although Legend of the Sword rarely feels like traditional fantasy, informed as it is by Ritchie’s ADD approach to directing, it often looks like it.
The Good, The Bad, and the Sexy Mage
To gear up for the role as the future king, Hunnam put on 20 pounds of muscle. His character trains in martial arts in what appears to be an ancient Chinese temple transplanted to Feudal London.
It’s never quite explained why Vortigern is such a jerk, though the role is one of Jude Law’s best performances. It’s as if he has finally aged into the kind of gravitas he has been trying to portray for years. His high cheekbones and languorous line delivery are just fine and supple enough to make him appealing even as he consorts with demons and inserts daggers where they don’t belong.
Praise to whoever cast Astrid Berges-Frisbey as The Mage, a Merlin surrogate who speaks in hard-voweled English and has entrancing eyes that, when she goes into a conjuring trance, seem able to roll back in her head like greased pinballs. At other times, special effects magicians turn the whites of her eyes a haunting black.
A different Arthur
I honestly don’t understand why such a hate about Ritchie’s Arthur from other critics. Yes, it’s sometimes a bit cheap and B movie-like, yes, it’s very different from the original Arthurian legend, but if you are into dark fantasy, Dragon Age, Game of Thrones (like me) you are going the like this movie.