Tuesday, 16 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (3 Stars)

I don't know what's happened to Guy Ritchie. The first films that he directed, "Lock, stock and two smoking barrels" (1998) and "Snatch" (2000), are two of the best films ever made. "Snatch" almost made it into my list of 30 films to watch before you die. From then on it just went downhill. One flop after another. I admit that I enjoyed his two Sherlock Holmes films, but I seem to be in the minority. Everything else he's made is unwatchable.

Now comes "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword", the first in a series of six films about the legendary British king. I had mixed feelings about going to see it in the cinema. The trailer looked strangely anachronistic, with people wearing clothes that would be acceptable today. I half expected to be disappointed, but I gave it a chance.

King Arthur is said to have ruled over part of southern Britain in the 5th or 6th Century, but it's not certain whether he ever really existed. It's possible that he's just a figure in a series of plays and poems that were written as late as the 11th Century. There are only vague historical references to a man of this name, but he may not have been a king, and even if he was a king the stories about him were certainly written at a later date. In particular, he's said to have ruled from a castle at Camelot, but this is a mythical city that wasn't invented until the 12th Century.

The 500-year period after the Romans left Britain in the 5th Century is often referred to as the Dark Ages. This time is dark from our current point of view. The Romans were diligent at keeping records. There are scrolls chronicling the population, tax income, court cases and every smallest detail of public life. We know practically everything about Britain from 77 to 400 A.D. Then the Romans left, leaving the country in the hands of squabbling warlords. As well as defending their lands against invading Vikings and Saxons, they fought against one another. Education was a low priority, and very few people outside of monasteries knew how to read and write. It was considered unnecessary to keep records. We know almost nothing about daily life, and we can't even be sure about the names of the rulers. It wasn't until the reign of King Alfred of Wessex (871 to 899) that it became common to keep records. It's a tragedy that the years from 400 to 871 have been wiped from history.

Guy Ritchie is fanciful in his telling of the story of King Arthur, inventing his own legends as he goes along. He presents Britain as a country co-inhabited by mages, beings who inherited magical powers. The mages were tolerated because they supported the kings, but after Modred attacked King Uther's castle in Camelot Uther decided to slaughter all the mages. In turn Uther's brother Vortigern, who was trained by mages and can perform smaller feats of magic, kills Uther and usurps the throne. Uther's infant son Arthur is sent away for his protection and is adopted by a prostitute in a London brothel. When he grows up he doesn't even know his own identity. The key is a magical sword called Excalibur. Only Arthur, the true king of Britain, will be able to pull this sword out of the stone where it's embedded.

This is a fantasy epic rather than a story grounded in reality. It belongs to the Swords and Sorcery genre. The film fails to excite. Charlie Hunnam lacks charisma as King Arthur. Jude Law is compelling as Vortigern, but all the other characters are forgettable.

This time I'm not in the minority in my opinion. The critics and the public agree with me that this is an unremarkable film, average at best. Based on the abysmal box office results the next five films won't be made. Let's give Guy Ritchie a chance to rediscover his magic somewhere else.

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