We were perusing the New Rentals section and not feeling very inspired. True, we’ve already seen all of the good ones and most of the bad ones, leaving mostly the stuff no one’s ever heard of. But we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to select any of it: not the chilly Liam Neeson flick, and not the Stallone one, and definitely not the one based on the impossible true story. It’s probably a bad sign for movies that we preferred to jump back to Amazon Prime and watch a known entity.
William (Heath Ledger) is a young squire, dutifully serving his master as he makes the rounds of jousting tournaments. But when the master dies suddenly, in between rounds, William convinces his cohorts Wat (Alan Tudyk) and Roland (Mark Addy) to suit him up in armour that makes one man nearly indistinguishable from another and send him out on the horse to finish the job. He does. He wins the game and earns the trio a little gold, which is necessary as they haven’t eaten in days. Bellies fed they can go their separate ways, but William’s always hid a little ambition in his heart, and now he sees the opportunity to improve his peasant’s lot in life and pose as a knight, making money by winning more tournaments. On the road to the next one, they bump into a florid writer, Chaucer (Paul Bettany), and he helps sell their case by forging genealogy papers and basically being his hype man. But then Williams meets two of the most inconvenient people: Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), who will stop at nothing to see him lose, and Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon), with whom he immediately falls in love, but she’s so far out of his league that his lies can only increase in order to keep her.
You may remember that director Brian Helgeland married this period piece with (sort of) modern rock, making the stadium jousting tournaments feel much more like hockey and basketball games of the modern era, except with cat meat and hot wine instead of hot dogs and cold beer, which is hardly an improvement. Purposefully anachronistic, it rattled some people’s cages back in 2001, but successfully interested younger audiences in historical films. A Knight’s Tale is a work of fiction, but based very loosely on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and including several of the known nobility of the time. Once you get past that, it’s a rather predicable entry into the sports movies genre. But it’s got Heath Ledger on horseback, which goes a long way. It’s still not a great movie, but it’s fun and it’s rousing and it’s only a little sad to see Heath Ledger in his prime. He was still relatively unknown before he landed this lead role; although 10 Things I Hate About You came out in 1999, Helgeland hadn’t seen him, and cast Ledger based on rushes he saw of him while filming The Patriot. The movie filmed in Prague (which is why a lot of the extras do not seem to readily respond to Chaucer’s prompts), on a soundstage next to the one where From Hell was filming; it’s how Heath and Heather Graham first hooked up. Ledger proved to be an excellent gamble, as did leading lady Shannyn Sossamon, who was briefly Hollywood’s IT girl. She was a complete unknown, having been discovered by Helgeland when she accompanied her friend, a DJ, on a job which turned out to be Gwyneth Paltrow’s birthday party. Her hair and costumes are wildly period-inaccurate, but they give her character a punk aesthetic that’s backed up by a feminist bent.
A Knight’s Tale is slightly edgy, slightly pandering, and perhaps just slight in general, but it’s interesting to watch, and was fun to revisit after so much time has passed.