A KNIGHT To Remember
Gadzooks! Methinks I witnessed the World Series of Jousting in A Knight’s Tale and actually enjoyed every minute of it. Combining the heart of Rocky, the courage of Gladiator, and the fun of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this action-adventure grabbed me with its opening scene of a medieval crowd clapping to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and held me in its clutches until the closing credits.
After watching such an unusual beginning, I couldn’t wait to see what filmmaker Brian Helgeland (Payback) had in store for viewers next. Happily, it was surprises galore! Besides using background music from the 70s and 80s in many key scenes, guess who it is he recruits to help the film’s hero (Heath Ledger from The Patriot) become a jousting champion? None other than Geoffrey Chaucer! “Chaucer’s my name and writing’s my game,” the famous poet tells Ledger’s character when they meet on the way to a tournament.
As played with delicious flamboyance by Paul Bettany (Bent), this Chaucer is very unlike the one I learned about when studying The Canterbury Tales in World Literature. After all, bawdy as his work is, the real Chaucer did become an esquire of the royal court. Of course, the events depicted in A Knight’s Tale are supposed to have happened before he achieved success as a writer and as the comptroller of the port of London.
William (Ledger), the son of a poor thatcher, first encounters Chaucer walking naked along the road, having lost all his clothes because of a gambling addiction. Realizing the daring youth must prove he is of noble birth to enter jousting contests, Chaucer agrees to provide forged documents in return for food and clothing. He then joins William and his two squires (Alan Tudyk and Mark Addy) as a loyal member of the team. Using his talent with words to improvise amazing tournament introductions for William (who jousts under the name of Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland), Chaucer becomes a ringmaster, press agent, sports promoter, and friend --- someone any modern sports icon would be lucky to have working for him.
Chaucer also advises William about romance. In one of my favorite scenes, he composes a beautiful letter from the lovesick lad to Lady Jocelyn (newcomer Shannyn Sossamon), by slightly changing phrases offered by each of the team members. (Shades of Cyrano de Bergerac?) In addition, the poet instructs William how to talk to Jocelyn, even giving him quotes from the Bible. But he fails at teaching the ambitious young man to dance. It takes an independent female blacksmith (Laura Fraser) to accomplish that difficult task. Thank heavens she succeeded, or I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of watching William and Jocelyn do their swingin' movements to the tune of David Bowie’s classic “Golden Years.” A similar melding of modern music and attitudes with medieval customs continued to delight me throughout this spirited movie.
Ledger’s appealing performance is another of the film’s many treats. Although I liked this Australian-born actor even better as the rebel teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, I found it quite easy to accept him here as a man who wants to reach for the stars and change his destiny. Ledger projects an intense underdog motivation reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone in Rocky --- plus an inner strength similar to Russell Crowe’s Gladiator. And, best of all, like Monty Python’s Black Knight, he convinced me his character wouldn’t quit, no matter what. The evil Count Adhemar, played almost too seriously by Rufus Sewell (Dark City), doesn’t stand a chance against such an eager adversary. I had a great time cheering William on, even while laughing at his social weaknesses.
Verily, I’m a sucker for movies about knights and their ladies. In days of yore, the sumptuous film version of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1952) made me hungry for more. Films like Prince Valiant and Camelot are among my favorites. But A Knight’s Tale is the first flick of this genre to draw me in as more than a spectator and give me a “you-are-there” feeling. Maybe that’s why my husband had to stop me from joining the crowd on screen in one of those jousting tournament WAVES.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated “PG-13” for action violence, some nudity, and brief sex-related dialogue.)