King Arthur takes a different approach than most representations of Arthurian legend, but unfortunately the final product does little to distinguish itself from other cinematic stories, which is why it is suffering a dismal box office fate ($38 mil so far), even though it probably deserves somewhat better.
Recommend this product?
The opening title card claims that the movie is set in the Dark Ages, based on the true stories behind the medieval legends. That means we don't see actual kings or typical knights, but rather an armor-clad Magnificent Seven, a posse in the service of the Holy Roman Empire. Led by Arthur (Clive Owen) with all of the commonly known men in tow (Lancelot, Tristan, etc.), the septuplet fights for various causes and freedoms in Britain. Along the way, they encounter a completely different representation of Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Instead of the usual damsel-in-distress, she is now a warrior princess of the Woads, an Indian-like indigenous people of Britain who are fighting to maintain possession of their land. Regardless of actual veracity, the story is wholly believable enough despite a couple glaring question marks.
The base problem with King Arthur is similar to, though not as severe as, that which plagued the last screen incarnation of the legend, First Knight. Like Lord of the Rings, Arthurian tales (or anything similar) should soar, inspiring awe with action, visuals, and nobility. While King Arthur contains flashes of brilliance (i.e. the brief flashback to Arthur's youth, or round table visuals), the inconsistencies in pace and tone do not allow the viewer to become emotionally involved.
Some of that is due to director Antoine Fuqua's inability to direct battle-driven movies. He showed it in Tears of the Sun, and he repeats his errors here. In neither film does he bother to distinguish much between the various protagonists. Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, Tristan...these men are legendary, and here they are reduced to being one-trick ponies instead of pillars of greatness and nobility. The battle scenes, which should highlight the movie, are possess little sense of direction or overall momentum, but overly concentrate on individual conflicts (which are decent) within a generic mass fray. Plus the movie was hampered by its clear intentions of avoiding an R rating. The entire movie, whether it be battle scenes, jokes, or love scenes, feels censored, a notch tamer than the circumstances warrant. That tempers the movie into something lesser than the premises promise.
That's a shame, because it wastes the splendid cinematography efforts of Slawomir Idziak (Black Hawk Down). Granted, the combination of Britain's rolling hills and classic castles isn't the most difficult thing to photograph, but Idziak does not paint his cinematic canvas with the conventional lush greens and blues of Braveheart, but instead endows the movie with a gritty, somber hue. While this looks fantastic, it also contributes to another downfall of King Arthur; its generally subdued and gritty nature contrasts with the soaring themes that should be present in this sort of movie. The palette, although well done, aids in holding the movie back from being truly engaging or compelling, which is what separates great action films (like LOTR) from the pack.
Another dichotomy of King Arthur lies in the reasonable to good performances that still don't propel the movie past mediocrity. In fact what saves the picture from abject failure is the overall gravitas of the entirely European cast. Owen effectively brings an everyman quality to Arthur, but still doesn't quite capture his inspirational spirit, despite a solid turn. With the exception of a surprising wooden Stellan Skarsgard, everyone else, despite an assortment of accents, looks right and seems completely at home in their roles. Perhaps this is due to the stage backgrounds that most of the cast has. Whatever the reason, their quality performances make the movie more entertaining than it has any right to be. In this case some of the parts (not the sum of the parts) are greater than the whole, resulting in a flick that occasionally leaps to life, but just as often crumbles to rubble.
I'm the type for whom sitting through any war-themed film is easy, so I'm not sorry I saw King Arthur, but I also can't recommend it. Go see a matinee. Five of ten from me, but if this isn't your genre, you won't even enjoy it that much.
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