A Knight's Tale (Cert PG)

by NEIL NORMAN, Evening Standard

It is apparent long before the spectacle of the young Geoff Chaucer (Paul Bettany) wandering the streets of 14th century Paris chanting: "He's young! He's pissed! He'll see you in the list!" that A Knight's Tale is not entirely a slave to authenticity.

I wouldn't have been surprised if Keith Allen had come stomping along the cobbles caparisoned in jester's motley singing Vindaloo! - or the appropriate 14th century culinary equivalent.

In fact, it is evident from the start with Queen's We Will Rock You blaring out that we are in for a shameless exercise in anachronism. Accuracy, shmaccuracy. I detect a streak of competitiveness here that goes well beyond the story.

If Baz Lurhman can drag Romeo and Juliet into the 21st century and pepper Moulin Rouge with late 20th century pop songs then why shouldn't writer/ director Brian Helgeland take the idea a stage further with his tale of a young peasant with aspirations to knighthood? And once that idea takes root, many blossoms flower.

The notion that the heroic young gods of the tourney were treated like rock stars or footballers is perfectly sound - at least for a modern audience.

But there is more. This is classic American socio-political propaganda: the idea that a commoner - as long as he is made of The Right Stuff - can become president. Inherited privilege, blue bloodline, noble lineage - all that old-world stuff - are anathemas to American dreamers. The proof is in the pudding. Or in this case the jousting.

William Thatcher (Heath Ledger), son of a poor thatcher (Christopher Cazenove), is given to a knight as a child in order to improve his chances of survival and at least guarantee a regular meal.

But when Sir Ector dies in France, William and his two pals Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) are left without an income or the means to acquire one. In a moment of inspiration born of desperation they nick Sir Ector's armour and after a little DIY training enter the first tournament they can find.

William is good with a sword but not so hot with a lance. However, he is fearless and bold and in today's age would be a leading light of the dangerous-sports club - first off the suspension bridge on a bungee.

There is just one problem: without Letters Patent proving his noble lineage he cannot enter the competition, which is restricted to men of high birth.

The pals' fortunes change when they encounter a naked man who introduces himself thus: "Geoffrey Chaucer's the name. Writing's the game." Geoff (Paul Bettany), who is sharper than most writers, immediately does a deal with William.

In return for clothing, shoes and food, he will forge the necessary Letters Patent. Bish bosh, William turns into Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland and is soon winning all manner of gold statuettes as he knocks his competitors off their horses.

He becomes the new hero of the tournaments, which rankles with Jouster Number One, the caddish Sir Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), with whom William is competing for the fair hand of the noble Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), whose costumes, if not her demeanour, resemble Audrey Hepburn as dressed by a 14th century Cecil Beaton.

The film is loaded from the start, though Helgeland throws in a couple of decent details to maintain intrigue well beyond the needs of the enterprise.

I particularly enjoyed the mystery and danger exuded by James Purefoy's Black Prince and the spunky invention of Laura Fraser's female blacksmith, Kate, who forges a new kind of lightweight armour for William.

As she resembles a young Madeleine Stowe one can only conclude that William sets his sights on the wrong girl, especially as the tiresome Jocelyn tests his love by demanding that he lose in the semi-finals - a romantic conceit that reverses the Chaucerian tale of Patient Griselda in a fit of political correctness.

The agenda beneath this jolly romp is far from hidden. This is a paean to corporate America - the idea that the right combination of courage, determination, a good support team plus the benefit of an inspired PR or spin doctor like Chaucer means that you, too, can become a knight, or at least act like one.

Not that anyone here "acts" like a knight - William comes across as a combination of David Ginola and Michael Hutchence.

Just to add mustard to the mix the real knight is a thoroughly bad egg. Sir Adhemar is a bully and a braggart, he rapes and pillages and plays dirty tricks in the competitions. And he's got it coming in spades.

It is a shameless crowd-pleasing button-pusher - nudged further by the deployment of anthemic rock songs and one illadvised scene wherein a post-joust party shifts from courtly stepping into a disco dance in which Ledger impersonates John Travolta in Saturday Knight Fever.

And yet the anachronisms are a logical extension of every historical film that ever was - from the class acts of Queen Christina or Alexander Nevsky to extravagant silliness like The Black Shield of Fal-worth or, more recently, First Knight.

The principal difference between these and their kin and A Knight's Tale is that Helgeland's anachronisms are deliberate.

The contrivance is as naked and unashamed as Bettany's oft-exposed posterior and backed up with amusing details - the "hot-dog and beer" sellers working the tournament crowds owe as much to American ball games as they do to Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Anyone for rat on a stick?

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