There are few timeless tales which have lasted the ages and persevered into the 21st century. There are fairytales - Jack and the Beanstalk and Beauty and the Beast are believed to be some of the oldest - biblical stories, from Adam and Eve to Noah to Jesus, and there are fables of great leaders. They're all based in reality, but over the centuries, the stories have changed and evolved from their origins. Now, one of the greatest legends of them all - that of King Arthur - has once again been brought to the big screen... but how does the folklore bear against 15 centuries of Chinese whispers, compression to 126 minutes of screen time, and an adaptation to appeal to the short attention spans of the modern era?
The story begins with the downfall of King Uther (Eric Bana, 'Lone Survivor', 'Munich') at the hand of his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law, TV’s ‘The Young Pope’, ’Dom Hemingway’, ’Anna Karenina’), and his young son Arthur fleeing the castle and hiding his true identity. Years later and now a grown man, Arthur is captured by his uncle’s men and subject to a test designed to expose him - pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone. He succeeds, escapes Vortigern’s clutches, and inadvertently falls in with a band of men trying to usurp the current king from his throne. Arthur doesn’t desire to pursue his birthright, but is eventually convinced to lead Vortigern’s downfall to avenge his father’s death.
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The varying legends of King Arthur differ greatly, from a king glorified by his successes to a subject in a fantastical tale of magic. This version of events largely establishes itself in a realistic world, yet with supernatural touches such as sorcery and mages. This is probably the film's one saving grace, helping to give it a firm grounding, and preventing it from becoming simply ludicrous or laughable.
From the opening scene, it’s clear this is a Guy Richie film, with his fingerprints all over the production. The problem is, we’ve seen his all before, and much more successfully in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ - the stylised violence, the speed ramped editing, the non-linear storytelling, the handheld camerawork. What isn’t stripped from his 2009 detective adaptation is borrowed stylistically from the likes of ‘300’ and ‘Exodus: Gods And Kings’. There’s nothing unique here, and certainly none of the flair or innovation shown in Richie’s ’The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’.
The audience is given little to no reason to connect with this world’s inhabitants. We're thrown amidst a mass of players where we're only briefly introduced to the characters, allowing us no time to develop any attachment to them, and so life or death means nothing - somewhat of a problem with a film concerning itself so substantially with the latter. The story presents no emotional depth, and we’re given such flimsy excuses for motivation of actions with drastic consequences.
Charlie Hunnam as Arthur simply doesn't have the capacity to carry this film on his shoulders.
Yet the film’s greatest disappointment lies in its casting. Charlie Hunnam (’Crimson Peak’, ’Pacific Rim’, TV’s ’Sons Of Anarchy’) as Arthur simply doesn't have the capacity to carry this film on his shoulders. He’s been cast for his looks rather than his ability, and either wanders aimlessly or flounders through most scenes. Arthur’s hesitance to take back the throne plays instead as indifference, and his command of others in his troupe is anything but regal - he’s frequently told what to do, and his orders are often ignored.
In fact, nobody here stands out in the film particularly; Jude Law has the strongest presence by default, and that’s from simply by smouldering and pouring his way through the film. Djimon Hounsou ('Guardians of the Galaxy', 'Gladiator') and Aidan Gillen (TV's 'Game Of Thrones' & 'The Wire') do their best with limited roles, but fall victim to a screenplay trying to cover a procession of characters and leapfrogging plot points in just over two hours. Nobody is helped by the mismatching language and retch-inducing dialog, which is thankfully kept to a minimum between fight sequences.
The truth is, even the battles are unimpressive, with army and crowd shots coming across as blatantly computer generated, and the close-up work remarkably disorienting. The camera constantly circles the combat, zooming in and out on special effects and slo-mo moments, never dwelling for more than half a second on any one subject. There’s no consequence or scope, so every killing ends up feeling like yet another tally for the body count.
For those interested on a bloodbath with a vague rationale, ‘King Arthur’ will have its audience. If you go in expecting a substantial look at the legendary leader, you are likely to be disappointed. Guy Richie’s signature techniques have been far better utilised in the past, when he had a better balance of style and substance. If anything, this film is a disservice to the tale which has endured for centuries.