A Knight’s Tale is the first film writer-director Brian Helgeland can completely call his own (though his name appears on Payback, star Mel Gibson had him replaced before filming was finished). It’s a pretty heady accomplishment for the directorial semi-debut of a guy who worked his way up from writing schlock horror (A Nightmare on Elm Street IV) to writing quirky horror (Highway to Hell) to writing more “respectable” films (L.A. Confidential). The film isn’t perfect. Among other things, it’s a bit too long for its own good — especially since, in terms of plot and theme, not one single thing happens that the viewer doesn’t expect. We all know from the beginning that the young peasant, William Thatcher (Heath Ledger), is going to become a champion jouster and get the girl and everything will work out just fine. The film is also somewhat unevenly structured in terms of Helgeland’s stylistic conceits. The decision to update a 14th-century-era film with a soundtrack of rock standards is bold, and works most of the time — not least of all because it’s a blessed departure from movies with nonintegrated rock soundtracks meant to sell albums rather than serve the film. Helgeland overcomes the potential risibility of the sonic anachronisms by introducing them at the film’s onset, where a jousting-match crowd rocks to Queen’s anthemic “We Will Rock You.” Helgeland makes the music an integral part of the proceedings, deliberately drawing laughs from the audience and setting the tone of the film by having the spectators move to the music and even sing along. The problem is that he only carries his approach to this extent once more, in a wonderful sequence at a post-jousting banquet utilizing David Bowie’s “Golden Years.” The sequence itself owes a great deal to Bing Crosby teaching King Arthur’s musicians how to swing it back in 1949 in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court — but Helgeland not only moves the concept forward, he dares to remove the fantasy underpinnings in the process. Great, but this represents only two points in the film. Other interpolations of rock music are far less audacious and sometimes even facile, as when our heroes arrive in London to Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town.” Even if this weakens the device, it still represents a break from that which we usually get, and helps to make A Knight’s Tale a savvy and creative blend of playing to audience expectations and desires (in terms of plot, theme and action) while breaking a bit of new ground. None of this would be anything more than an interesting experiment were it not for Helgeland’s script, which is charming, witty and moving, and his first-rate handling of the actors and the action (even if the latter is a little too tarted up with Gladiator-style image manipulation). This is the film — and the performance — that should propel Heath Ledger (The Patriot) to full-blown stardom. And it ought to do the same for the marvelous Paul Bettany (Morality Play) in the role of the writer Geoffery Chaucer (yes, Chaucer). His Chaucer — whose literary gifts extend to creating a bogus nobility and heroic past for our hero and proclaiming his creations exploits to a delighted crowd — is a lovable scoundrel with a penchant for gambling and losing his shirt … and trousers and everything else. The film does right by its actors, who in turn do right by it. The only one with cause for possible complaint is Rufus Sewell in the role of the film’s arch-villain, but he seems to be thoroughly enjoying the character’s somewhat two-dimensional vileness. On nearly every level, A Knight’s Tale is solid, satisfying entertainment — and something more.
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