DIR: Guy Ritchie • WRI: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram • PRO: Steve Clark-Hall, Akiva Goldsman, Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, Tory Tunnell, Lionel Wigram • DOP: John Mathieson • ED: James Herbert • DES: Gemma Jackson • MUS: Keefus Ciancia, David Holmes • CAST: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Aidan Gillen, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
It’s rarely a good sign when a studio pushes back the release date for one of its upcoming films more than once. To do it once is understandable to a degree, the studio may be trying to hit a holiday or avoid competition with another big release. Twice suggests that the studio has realised a last-minute problem with the film that needs fixing before marketing or release. Three times suggests that the studio is questioning its own product, unsure of where exactly it fits or what exactly it is.
Guy Ritchie’s newest adaptation of the King Arthur legend, supposedly the first film in a series of six, fits into the latter category. Though at times visually compelling, and not without some well-crafted sequences, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, much like the titular character, seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. Half sweeping fantasy epic, half nitty-gritty gang comedy (with just a dash of Kung Fu), the film is overstuffed with ideas that could have proven intriguing if given enough room to breathe.
After his father King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is killed in a bloody coup led by his power-hungry uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), our young prince finds himself adrift, stripped of his home and his throne. Found by some kindly sex workers on the banks of Londinium, who take him in and raise the boy as their own, his royal lineage is quickly forgotten. Years pass and the now brawny and brainy Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) maintains a tidy business running the brothel he grew up in and dabbling in some illegal goods trading on the side, all the while keeping the local law enforcement off his back with some generous pay-offs.
Haunted by memories of a past that now is little more than a dream to him, our scrappy protagonist is nonetheless content with his life. But Arthur’s destiny catches up with him when he, along with all the other young men in the kingdom, is brought to Camelot to see who can release King Uther’s sword from the stone it has been lodged in since his death. Of course, no sooner than Arthur’s hand touches the hilt our story really begins to kick off. Aided by his late father’s loyal followers, Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and ‘Goosefat’ Bill Wilson (Aidan Gillen), as well as a mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) who was the apprentice of Merlin himself, a reluctant Arthur must confront his fate and learn to be a force for good against his uncle’s evil.
The juxtaposition between the traditional ideas of the chivalrously noble King Arthur and Guy Ritchie’s rough and tumble interpretation makes for a nice new direction, but the concept fails to yield much of what it initially promises. Indeed, there are moments in the film when it seems the entire purpose of positioning Arthur as some sort of benign underworld Don was merely to provide some witty banter, word play and the quick cut dialogue exchanges between multiple characters that often marks Ritchie’s work. It ultimately raises some questions that are never answered. A lot of the problem lies with Hunnam’s performance; he’s simply a bit too geezer-esque, more aggressive than charming. The rest of the cast do well enough in their perspective roles, though Law’s turn as Vortigern often errs on the side of hammy rather than deliciously foppy.
The film’s strength lies in its engaging visuals, namely the impressive opening sequence and the clever editing during certain fight scenes which lends them a greater feel of urgency and excitement. However, the quality of the visuals does not remain consistent throughout the film. While in certain scenes the CGI is used to its best advantage, in others it looks badly rendered and cheap, almost akin to a videogame cutaway scene. Certain combat sequences are also edited too quickly with the camera too close up on the characters, making it difficult to discern what exactly is happening on screen, particularly in the latter half of the film.
Overall, this latest addition to the King Arthur filmography is at best mildly enjoyable schlock with some cool moments scattered about here and there, and at worst an inconsistent take on a classic character with an unpromisingly shaky foundation on which to build a film franchise. King Arthur may have drawn the sword from the stone, but it’s doubtful whether he’ll be able to draw audiences to the cinema with this film.
12A (See IFCO for details)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is released 12th May 2017