Saturday, June 1, 2013

King Arthur (2004)

Director: Antoine Fuqua                                 Writer: David Franzoni
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                              Cinematography: Slawomir Idziak
Starring: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Stellan Skarsgård and Ioan Gruffudd

This is a film that perfectly demonstrates the curse of characterization--or more accurately, the lack of characterization. From the outside King Arthur seems to have everything going for it, a great story, solid direction, wonderful actors, and a beautiful production design. Unfortunately, the script simply kills it. This is especially odd considering that David Franzoni is the author of Gladiator and Amistad, two historical films which I feel are excellent. Here, we have brilliant battle scenes, set design that is extraordinary, a fantastic cast that drew my attention to the film in the first place . . . and absolutely no character development at all.

The story is a revisionist view of the King Arthur legend. Rather than the late middle ages in which the story is usually set, the prologue tells us that the story began much earlier, with the Roman withdrawal from Britain. Arthur and his knights, then, were the sons of expert horsemen that the Romans had captured and indentured into service, in this case at the farthest outpost of the realm. When the audience first sees them, it is in a battle to save one of the bishops of the new Roman Christian church. They save the bishop, but before they can go home they are sent on one last mission, to bring home some important Romans who are living in the north, among whom is a female slave named Guinevere. But we learn nothing about their lives, nothing about their relationships, no backstory, no intimate discussions . . . nothing.

It’s just such a shame, because the film had such potential. Clive Owen is Arthur, and by virtue of his being born in Britain he has become a Christian. The rest of the knights, including Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, are devoutly pagan. This is another refreshing trend in historical films, the demystifying of Christianity, putting it in its place as one of many religions and one that, in hindsight, is particularly impotent. The one misstep, just in terms of characterization, is Guinevere. Keira Knightley is one of my favorite actors, but her character here has so little visible motivation. We see the aftermath, but without being able to empathize with her, the rage she feels seems forced. The great Stellan Skarsgård is on hand as the leader of the Saxons, and he does a fantastic job, as always, and the rest of the knights do a nice supporting job as well.

I watched the director’s cut, and I can’t even imagine a shorter version working at all. In this respect the film is similar to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, where the theatrical cut is almost unwatchable by comparison. However, that film is great. King Arthur is, unfortunately, one of those films that had a lot of potential and yet couldn’t manage to overcome a lack of characterization, something I feel an historical film needs more than most others. Ultimately the film is not a bad one. It’s very watchable and it is entertaining at times. But it is nowhere near as great as it could have been.

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