Review: A Knight’s Tale (2001)

One of the problems with being a knight of old, aside from the obvious risks of early death or permanent injury, was that not just anyone could qualify in the jousting arena. Apparently, you actually had to be a knight to compete, and your noble credentials were checked at registration. So what do you do if you are a poor peasant with the stout heart to be a knight but not the lineage? You could try this strategy: wait until your knight dies unexpectedly, hope you can fit into his armor and then try to successfully impersonate a knight to earn a few farthing.

That is what passes for a plot to A Knight’s Tale. Due to the persistence of his father (who recognizes his unusual fearlessness), William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) of Cheapside in London circa 1375 or so manages to become a squire to Sir Ector. He is your run of the mill knight who makes a marginal living participating in jousts. Although William had never jousted before, he somehow manages to complete his master’s joust and win a small amount of prize money. The knight’s two other squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk, who went on to star as the pilot of the short lived but brilliant Firefly series) are persuaded to help William perpetuate his ruse, since apparently it beats starvation. William rebrands himself as Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland.

William may have a stout heart but he has to master jousting. Out in the country where he prepares for his first joust, he and his compatriots run across a naked Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany). Yes, of course he is that Chaucer. Jeff as they call him has a gambling problem (hence his nakedness) and is as well a frustrated 14th century English major. Apparently, there is just no demand for poets in a world where only a tiny fraction of the population can read. I never imagined Chaucer as quite the flamboyant and petulant man that Bettany portrays him, but this movie is out more to amusingly entertain than to actually convince you that you are in the 14th century. Toward that end, it feels a bit like Moulin Rouge! Although it portrays medieval times, in this movie the good citizens of England are not beyond dancing to a few 20th century pop lyrics, which fits with the mostly lighthearted atmosphere of the movie.

In fact, both the nobility and peasants of this Medieval England look pretty good. You do not see that many beggars in the street, people with bad teeth or oozing sores, or dead bodies. What you do see plenty of are jousting competitions. Naturally, there must also be romance. William is enamored with a lovely lass named Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). She is a hard woman to woo. Fortunately, when you have Geoffrey Chaucer in your entourage, you can put an English major to good use. He generates some first class poetry that helps to woo her heart. Bettany is actually quite funny in this movie and may be one reason to see the movie.

As you might suspect, William succeeds in his knightly quest, although by the 14th century this largely meant earning money in jousts, not going to war. Jousting keeps him and his squires well fed, while constantly wondering when their ruse will be discovered. It is Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell) who becomes William’s thorn in his side. He is jealous of his love for Jocelyn and is determined to beat him in jousting, using tricks fair and foul. This provides a semblance of suspense to the movie.

This is mostly a lighthearted romp with occasionally serious undertones. The jousting is actually quite impressive. The movie at times feels like one big Renaissance Fair. I think I would rather have preferred to be a starving peasant rather than taking my chances on top of a horse like these knights did. Wrestlers who think they have many body pains cannot begin to imagine what knights had to endure. While the jousting is good fun and Chaucer’s comic heraldry is certainly entertaining there is little else about the movie that is particularly memorable. A Knight’s Tale then is really just an enjoyable and vapid popcorn movie. Unlike others in the genre like Van Helsing it aspires to be merely an entertaining B movie. In that sense, it succeeds quite well, since it was likely shot for a tenth of Van Helsing‘s cost. This is a B- of a movie, watchable and generally fun but nothing special.

I give it a 2.8 on my 4.0 scale.

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