It starts out Robin Hood and ends up Braveheart, but mostly it just makes you just want to watch Gladiator again.
In the fifth century, Arthur (Clive Owen) is the commander of a contingent of knights holding and policing Britain for the declining Roman Empire. As they near the end of a fifteen-year conscription which will set them free upon completion, one final task is set before the knights. On their way to rescue a favored Roman from a territory about to be overrun by invading Saxons, they will discover a new homeland beneath their feet while Arthur finds his life’s purpose that will give rise to a legend.
It sounds like something you’ve never seen before: the true story set hundreds of years eariler than anyone knew about a king who united men under laws that applied to all. Unfortunately, the telling of this truth-inspired tale is far less interesting than its imbelished version while the cinematography shows us nothing we haven’t already seen before. All that remains of interest are tiny footnotes seeded through flashbacks, such as the inspiration for ‘the sword in the stone,’ and why Merlin is often described as a magician.
There are a few interesting sequences, but fewer surprises. When hundreds of Saxons try to pursue our terribly outnumbered heroes across a lake of crackling thin ice, can you guess what happens to even the odds? The other battle sequences are much harder to keep track of since it isn’t clear who is where, keeping the audience as much in the fog of war as the Saxons; it plays out more like bad editing than a clever ploy. Even the sets are so neat and clean that it makes you yearn for the authentic mud and ruin of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while the costumes constantly remind you that Gladiator was 100% more interesting anyway.
Clive Owen as Arthur spends most of his screen time looking distressed in close-ups of his hazel eyes; too bad more time wasn’t spent doing something. Ray Winstone as Bors (has anyone ever heard of Sir Bors before this?) manages to steal scenes by acting more like Little John to Owen’s Robin Hood, which makes no sense at all in a film about King Arthur. Stellan Skarsgård as Saxon leader Cerdic talks big but does less than Arthur at proving he’s really a ruthless conqueror, while Keira Knightley’s re-imagined Guinevere provides eye candy for all forty year-old men who think they still have a shot at a girl half their age.
It never really seems clear when, how, or if Arthur becomes king, who the heck Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is supposed to be in all this, and what happened to Morgan LeFay, Mordred, and everything else interesting about Camelot. For those who have no clue what the source material this film supposedly inspires, the film may be watchable but clearly isn’t memorable. For the rest who know of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, even the worst parts of Excalibur are preferable to this.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)