King Arthur, right, he was a bit of a geezer, yeah? He cheekily pulled a sword from a stone and led England to victory, but he was also obsessed with a foolish quest for something unobtainable and is the most famous cuckold in all folk history. It’s been thirteen years since the last major attempt at an Arthurian film, 2004’s aptly titled King Arthur, and so Guy Ritchie (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) is having his own go with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. It has some of his gangster finesse, but there’s the distinct possibility that he’s gone too straight with the material.
King Uther (Eric Bana, Special Correspondents) is slain by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law, TV’s The Young Pope), who ascends to the throne without the legendary sword Excalibur. Many years later, Uther’s son Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, Crimson Peak) is roused from the brothel that he protects in Londinium to join Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou, The Legend of Tarzan) to stand against his uncle before he can complete his Mage’s Tower and obtain unholy magical power.
Legend of the Sword has an incredibly generic title, and the titular king spends 99% of its run crownless, table setting for a franchise that is likely never to be. After a fairly standard opening sequence with nigh unreadable expository text and oliphaunts lifted directly from Warner Bros’ own Lord of the Rings movies, it doesn’t take long for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword to prove its specific worth. Arthur recounts his day’s activities with a city guard (Michael McElhatton, TV’s Genius) with narration, commentary, and riposte. It’s sparkling, and comfortably reminiscent of Ritchie’s long-dormant house style. When he attempts the same technique, without the wit and with occasionally confusing chronology, several more times across the film, it is with distinctly diminishing returns, but for a brief segment one has higher hopes for Legend of the Sword than can ever be delivered.
When Ritchie isn’t being cheeky, his script, co-written with producer Lionel Wigram (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and significantly retooled from a version still credited to Joby Harold (Awake), drags with self-importance. One gets the impression that Vortigern is supposed to be a tragic villain but everything that he does is self inflicted. The resistance are played by an assortment of talented actors, Aidan Gillen (TV’s Game of Thrones) not least of them, but most are interchangeably characterised and ultimately expendable. If Gillen and Hounsou are insurance for future instalments, they’re hard done by here. The one significant female character, played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (I Origins), does not even have a name.
Ritchie’s style, when he’s not doing his fast-forward rewind tactics, is murky; if one wanted to know what Camelot looked like, they’d have to squint and pray for some lighting to have entered the CGI. Action sequences are few, but are frequently solved through the use of an essentially invincible sword. The film culminates in a metaphorical battle that requires very little of Law, and makes one wonder why Hunnam needed to engage in a superhero-style exercise regime to appear in this film.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword could have been one thing or the other — one entertaining, one stock standard — but it settles on an unhappy medium that is never tonally consistent. This is not the sort of film that you watch for its performances, but the flashes of character and warmth that Ritchie occasionally allows to shine through makes one nostalgic for what could have been but never was.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opened in Australian cinemas on May 18, 2017.
Directed by: Guy Ritchie.
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen and Eric Bana.