Saturday, September 23, 2006

Knight's Tale

There's a lot that a purist could complain about in this movie, but I still like it. It has a bad case of historical clichés #4 (Real Men Don't Wear Dresses) and #5 (Bad Hair). The armor is mostly 16th c. in a story set in the 14th, and the tourney circuit portrayed in the film was more characteristic of the 12th century. 14th century squires are portrayed as peasants rather than the gentlemen they were. There's a plot hole in the final joust you could drive a Hussite war-wagon through. And yet...

I'm willing to cut the movie a lot of slack on the historical accuracy side because it doesn't pretend to be. When the opening tournament features the sound of air horns, fans doing the wave and "We Will Rock You" as background music, the viewer has fair warning that the movie is not going to be a literal recreation of the 14th century. Fair warning is good.

Having frankly admitted that it isn't necessarily going to be faithful to the actual Middle Ages, the film proceeds to provide nuggets of medieval goodness. William Thatcher (Heath Ledger), squire to the inconveniently dead Sir Hector, decides that he nonetheless has a shot at making it on the tourney circuit. He and his companions shortly encounter young Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany). "Perhaps you've heard of me? Book of the Duchess?...well fair enough, it was an allegory.." Bettany's wonderfully mournful crestfallen expression as it becomes clear that his listener's have not read the Book of the Duchesse was worth the price of admission for me.

The Chaucer subplot proceeds to wind in some characters from the Canterbury Tales and an explanation of the true background to "Chaucer's Complaint to His Purse" This sets up the conceit that the action nominally set in the 1370s thus justifies the high proportion of '70s music in the soundtrack.

Thatcher, pursuing his beloved, the aristocratic Jocelyn, is taken aback to discover that to win her love he must not simply do his best in the tournament, but go against his natural inclination and do his worst on her bidding. I'm happy to see a direct steal from Chrétien de Troyes on this, and the movie actually seems to have a fairly good take on the dynamics of courtly love. "I demand poetry, and when I want it, and I want it now." says Jocelyn, stamping her feet.

In spite of being something of a temporal tossed salad, the movie frequently tosses in highly plausible medieval artifacts. I had joyful moments of saying to myself "Hey! I recognize that aquamanile!"

And the recognition of the social value of a discovered or invented genealogy is an authentic medieval touch. This happens twice in the film. The first time it is clearly fraudulent. The second is nicely ambiguous: at a key point another tremendously convenient genealogy is revealed. Do the powers that be truly believe it, or is it a fiction that they wink at to achieve their ends without directly challenging social norms?

The jousting is splendidly kinetic and, as Jocelyn says, "abrupt", although I cringed a bit at the inadequate neck protection of some of the jousters.

Finally, I think Jocelyn's highly anachronistic hair and clothing are part of a deliberate and legitimate strategy for conveying important information to the audience. But that's fodder for another post.

1 comment:

Steve Muhlberger said...

I have much the same view. It is clear that the director knew a tremendous amount about medieval culture (Jesuit university) and made a clear choice to translate it if he could into terms a young (movies!) audience might understand on an emotional level.

Besides anyone who did not walk out after the first 5 minutes of fair warning was looking for something to complain about.