“A Knight’s Tale” does waste time later, but not in its exposition. Within the first 20 minutes, a Middle Ages squire named William (Heath Ledger) has taken his dead master’s place on horseback to win a jousting tournament, then, after a flukish victory, gone into training to become a legitimate competitor.
No agonizing over his lowly station in life and a desire to rise above it. No secret longings to be a jouster. No ethical dilemma when his master keels over mid-tournament and he’s faced with the opportunity to put on the identity-masking armor and take over for him. The movie knows we’ve seen films about underdogs before, so we know the routine. Why waste time pretending the outcome is going to be something other than what it is?
It’s a swell attitude, and a swell movie, really, that combines modern sensibilities (and a little slang) with medievel sports and culture. In the first jousting sequence, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” is heard, just as in 20th-century sports arenas. It’s not just on the soundtrack, though: The spectators are singing along with it. No explanation is given as to how the audience knows a song that won’t be recorded for another 600 years, or how they’re hearing it with no P.A. system available. Nor should movie-goers care. A historical yarn spun with now-current ideas is gimmicky, yes, but “A Knight’s Tale” doesn’t seem like a gimmick movie. You just go with it, and you have fun.
William’s obstacle in jousting is the fact that only nobles are allowed to compete, and he’s a low-life. So he adopts the name Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein and fools everyone with a fake pedigree drawn up by none other than writer Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), a gambling addict whom we first meet as he walks buck-naked down a country road, having lost all his clothes to his creditors.
William’s co-conspirators are his old pals Wat (Alan Tudyk) and Roland (Mark Addy). They’re all in this for the money, while William apparently has loftier goals that we don’t learn about until quite late in the film: He wants to find his father and embrace his ghetto roots and Just Be Himself.
There is the requisite noble maid, Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), whom William seeks to woo despite her having the most ridiculous hair of the Middle Ages. There is also the requisite French git, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), who also seeks to woo Jocelyn and who naturally is also the reigning jousting champion, which means William has to defeat him both at love and in athletic competition. There’s also the requisite spat William and Jocelyn have, which literally comes unprovoked and goes away just as easily; it really seems to be in the movie just to make sure all the standard bases are covered.
But predictability is not a liability here. Re-using old sports-movie cliches in an ancient setting was done with a straight face in “Gladiator,” but with tongue in cheek here. (It cannot be unintentional that Rufus Sewell looks and acts a great deal like Joaquin Phoenix, and that his character serves the same function here as did Phoenix’s in “Gladiator.”) Director/writer Brian Helgeland knows we’ve seen all this stuff before, and that just makes it more enjoyable. Criticizing the film for being predictable would be missing the point.
(In one nice moment, Jocelyn observes William’s exploits on the jousting field and notices all his fine attributes — mercy, strength, bravery, etc. — and sums them up immediately. No danger of the audience missing the subtle characterizations when they’re being spelled out for us.)
The film has a great soundtrack (by definition, any film featuring War’s “Low Rider” is automatically a great soundtrack), which helps a lot. There are fine performances from the male leads; the women, such as they are, do not do much. I like Geoffrey Chaucer’s character especially, acting as William’s mouthy promoter (“We walk in the garden of his turbulence!” he boasts to an eager audience, with no explanation what the hell that means.)
I mentioned earlier that the film does waste time eventually. It does that with the father subplot, which is rather unnecessary and especially unconvincing. There’s also a lengthy flashback to William’s childhood, which serve the same dubious purpose of establishing Williams’ low-born heritage and proud dreams. When it keeps to the point, however, the film is quite fun indeed — a classic example of being mindlessly entertaining without being stupid.
B+ (; )