Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law
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Upon its theatrical release, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was almost immediately touted as 2017’s big summer flop by critics up and down the land. Being compared to Monty Python’s Holy Grail for its silliness, Guy Ritchie’s latest outing seems to have let the side down, barely making a scratch in its production budget – the director’s plans to make a six-part Arthurian saga have sunk faster than the Lady of the Lake. However, in a world of Fast and the Furious and Michael Bay’s Transformers, it’s a shame that a story about a king doing good is so reviled.
Here comes a leader who doesn’t want the power, who isn’t trying to cut ties with England’s European allies to appease his back-benchers (King Arthur doesn’t have back-benchers because he has a round table – you don’t see that on the privy council, do you?) and who is both chivalrous and socialist in the same breath. (Even if he is a pimp at the beginning, some would say that’s just the libertarian in him… maybe?)
Say what you like about Guy Ritchie’s border-line obsession with East-End crooks and ‘ard men, but he clearly loves England in his own special way. Arthur has a great line: “Why have enemies, when you can have friends?” This comes just after a Viking has threatened England, after Arthur has reneged on a trade deal of human trafficking made by his predecessor. He says that when someone addresses him, they are speaking to England and all the people under the king’s protection (for the many not for the few, right?).
So, rather than having Charlie Hunnam play Arthur straight-laced, a la Clive Owen’s portrayal of Arthur as a Roman Centurion who was about as charismatic as Piers Morgan’s Twitter feed, Hunnam’s Arthur is one of the lads. Since the Owen outing, King Arthur’s cinematic portrayal has been largely dormant, so if you’re trying to get a bunch of Snapchatting millennials to buy into the Arthur legend, who are you going to ask them to root for? A Prince Valliant type, who just wants to give peace a chance? Of course not: you’re going to give them a loveable rogue who is flawed.
This latest Arthur is a man-child in denial about who he really is and what his responsibilities are. He’s apathetic to the dire political landscape, as Jude Law runs amok with regicide and witch-hunts, chewing up so much scenery that it’s surprising how ravenously he eyes up the rest of the cast, as if they’re all avocado toast whose only purpose is to sustain his leadership. Helping him along the way are the ‘Black Legs’, an army of nasties that dominate the landscape. An army of misogynistic dudes dominating the conversation with hateful words and deeds, propping up an insatiable despot who only cares about himself? Where have we heard that before?
That’s what makes this depiction of Arthur great: he’s fallible. He has to prove himself to his knights, which is what the Arthur story has always been about. A great leader serves his people; he does not ask them to serve him. Arthur’s rise to kingship plays out a bit like a stag-do – his work mates and friends of the family are lumped together to prepare him for his marriage to the throne and there’s a lot of mayhem in between.
Said mayhem is pretty compelling, albeit framed in a range of mildly perverse editing choices. In particular, the asymmetrical editing style when a “right lads, ‘ere’s the plan” montage pops up is a little hard to follow. However, it does make Arthur and his pals feel like a medieval version of The Real Hustle. Where we get a really unique take on the Arthur story is when Arthur draws the titular sword. Much like Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, Arthur’s fight scenes are all slo-motion and rack zooms. This really gives a feel of nuance to the choreography, – we can actually see what’s going on – and it’s vaguely reminiscent of Marvel’s Thor, where the power of a legendary weapon is intrinsically linked to a character’s identity. It takes a while for Arthur to unleash the power of Excalibur because he’s afraid of it and it’s refreshing for a character to be so reluctant to accept power out of self-interest, rather than self-doubt.
There’s also a great Lovecraftian montage that shows Arthur’s training in a dark world of magic. This is not only reminiscent of the original legend, where Arthur is said to have been hidden as an infant in a different plane of existence (where the Lady of the Lake resides). It’s also a nice nod to the John Boorman film that shows a montage of Sir Percival’s journey into madness in search of the Holy Grail, which evokes similar gothic horror themes. The final battle, meanwhile, feels like something ripped directly from the Dark Souls videogame series – if nothing else, this should serve as an educating example of how integral the King Arthur legend is to the evolution of dark medieval fantasy.
In that way, Legend of the Sword manages to show reverence for the original myth, while making the story relevant for a modern audience. This is backed up by the fact that the female lead is the source of authority on both the physical and magical world; The Mage, played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, is thankfully given far more to do than she could have been and at no point is relegated to love interest duties.
In the age of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Arthur’s return seemed to be a surefire success. But perhaps alongside George RR Martin’s bloody epic, this more optimistic take on the fantasy genre wasn’t able to push back against the wave of cynicism that greeted it. At the end of the Arthur legend, it has always been said that Arthur and his knights were laid to rest to return when England needed them. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a triumphant return. Maybe people just didn’t realise they were needed.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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