There are some stories that we will never stop telling. The recent round of these stories, be it fairytales, legends or classic books, seem to lean towards the “darker and grittier” aesthetic. A lot of people complain that this is unnecessary; that it leaves the characters one dimensional, and makes the ridiculous aspects of fantasy worlds all the more obvious and harder to swallow. But there are good things to say about this “genre” of remake. For one, it occacionally looks totally badass. It also, when done right, allows otherwise “silly” aspects of stories to be reworked, which can be a good stepping stone to more nuanced versions of those stories.
The gritty remake of King Arthur was King Arthur (2004) with Clive Owen as the legendary king. It did not add much to the Arthurian legend, and only stands out in my mind due to the uproar over Keira Knightly’s photoshopped bosom on the poster. It’s a bit of an odd relic today, full of actors who would become better known later, for better or worse.
Guy Ritchie’s take on the well-known story is full of grittiness – silent screams, washed out colours, deep drumming music. In the hands of any other director it might have come out as “Batman in the 12th century”, but Ritchie has his own aesthetic, one that clashes head first into the dark fantasy version of Camelot. If you don’t like Guy Ritchie, you won’t like this film. It has all his hallmarks: parallell story, hard to follow narrators, hand held running, slow-motion, and cheeky banter. But does it lean too much in either direction? Would the story have been better served if it layed on more dark grit, or more lock stock?
In this version of the story, quite far from the original Arthurian tale, Mordred has more in common with some sort of dark elf who can control Oliphants from Lord of the Rings. He is defeated by King Uther (Eric Bana), with Excalibur, but the king is then betrayed by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who desires the crown and sword. Little Arthur is sent down the river Moses-style, while Uther sticks the sword in his own back and turns into a rock. By now, we are closer to a fantasy novel than old English tales.
Years later Vortigan is testing every young man by forcing them to try and pull the sword from the stone in order to then immediately kill the only threat to his throne. Arthur, now hunky Charlie Hunnam, is a gangster-pimp with a heart of gold, having grown up in a brothel in Londinium. Hunnam has been the master of playing the cocky, sassy hunk since his days as the lanky Nathan in Queer as Folk, and he is like a fine wine in that respect. More annoying that Chris Hemsworth’s dopey charm, yet just as principled, this Arthur is the classic unwilling hero with a modern sense of humour. Perhaps that’s the key to enjoying the film: allowing yourself to believe fully that 12th century people talk like Guy Ritchie characters.
Arthur’s story is the hero’s journey, but he is also the “unconventional” leader trope. He will not go down the path that is set for him; he’ll do it his own way, with his own “crew”, no matter what those fancy barons say. The film quickly becomes a heist of sorts, with classic Ritchie storytelling.
I am an unashamed fan of this effect. I absolutely adore how Ritchie tells these “plan and execution” montages, and in King Arthur he is on top, and interweaves several plot lines into themed parallells. It’s fast, sometimes exhausting, but fun. Like all Ritchie films, I get the sense that we are dealing with a very uncoordinated narrator, who is constantly forgetting where he is in the story. Perhaps we can read this as how all stories are eventually remembered: not well, and pieces that before weren’t connected, suddenly become cause and effect.
Arthur’s crew shines in these bits, and you get the sense that this is the new way to get the “round table” together. However, this is my major gripe with the film. It doesn’t always earn its conclusions. At the end of the film Arthur (spoiler) is crowned and builds his round table, but we never have that “this is our fight” moment. All the pieces are placed: Arthur’s old crew must work with the older, “traditionally educated” knights loyal to Uther, and their banter is sweet. But there is never a moment that says to me: we are the knights of Camelot, coming together with a Guardians of the Galaxy style slow-mo walk (though the film had enough slow-mo as is). So, when the table is made and our knights knighted, there is a distinct lack of that payoff feeling.
The same can be said for Arthur’s personal journey. At first he fights only for his friends, but he must learn to take on the wider responsibility of a King, face his father’s death, and fight for his people. But his acceptance is rushed and the emotionality of the “silent scream” to the heavens falls flat. Ritchie’s editing sometimes spoon feeds us what the characters are going through, because everything needs to be fast. But there are other moments in the film that are slow, not to mention the slow-mo (so much slow-mo), so it seems unfair that Arthur’s journey is cut short. Here dark and gritty is attempted, but gets pushed aside. In a film that feels very long, that doesn’t sit right.
As for the other characters, Vortigern is probably the most fleshed-out and this was definitely a good decision. Jude Law shines as the man who lives off the fear of others, and his sacrifice of his loved ones is entirely believable. It’s a shame he has to turn into a video-game boss at the end, for all of Law’s acting is thrown away for a red-eyed skull monster. It looks cool, and the boss fight was worthy of Darksiders, but a shame nonetheless.
Another character that is short changed is “The Mage” (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). I’m not sure if I should blame the acting, director, or script, but she is dull as porridge. A monotone for the ages and with no story. She is suppose to be this version’s Merlin substitute (she is apparently sent by him) and this is what we get? In a film with barely any female presence beyond dying ladies or whores she sticks out like a stick in the mud.
So, is it any good? For me it balances on the edge of badassery. It knows its audience, yet drags on just a few seconds longer here and there so that the Ritchie-pace is broken. The characters are mostly fun and speak in that cheeky modern way, but then we get a weird mute mage that distrupts the whole thing. We have a very easy plot with a group of misfits defeating an evil power, but the end is just a standard boss fight while the others barely have anything to do. I had fun, but I know I could have had more fun.
To answer the question, the film does have a good blend of grit and Ritchie-ness, but it takes a few missteps here and there on the road to Camelot.
Dice roll: 4