“We walk in the garden of his turbulence”
There was always one reason I didn’t watch A Knight’s Tale: Heath Ledger. I eventually turned around on him as an actor after The Brothers Grimm and of course his Oscar nominated role in Brokeback Mountain, but in 2001 he was just that heartthrob all the girls loved who probably couldn’t act. Yes, I say probably because I’ll admit to never really giving the man a chance despite my enjoying him in Monster’s Ball, The Patriot, and guilty pleasure 10 Things I Hate About You. To this day I still kind of wrote off A Knight’s Tale, ignoring its stellar cast and Brian Helgeland‘s name as writer/director because armor and maidens didn’t interest me. As anyone who’s seen it knows, though, any semblance of generic period action evaporates when its 14th century joust attendees begin chanting Queen‘s “We Will Rock You”.
Loosely adapted—to the point of rightfully not being credited—from Geoffrey Chaucer‘s first installment of The Canterbury Tales entitled “The Knight’s Tale”, Helgeland crafts an anachronistic look at what it meant to be a peasant dreamer at a time where birthright was everything. The synopsis I’ve read of the original text doesn’t mention jousting at all so we’ll say A Knight’s Tale was inspired by its description of the era rather than any visage of plot, content, or legacy. Helgeland instead focuses on a young gentleman who isn’t even a knight. William Thatcher (Ledger) is a squire for a seemingly genial fighter who has just died during a joust (the scene depicting this shows a stuntman actually being injured on set). Rather than starve without a master, he decides to finish the match incognito and prevails.
It’s the taste he needs to “change the stars” as it were, a saying his father told him long ago. If he trained and readied for the next tournament with fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) he could fake his way towards riches and a life he always believed he was destined to achieve. In this respect the film is very much an underdog, feel good sports tale where the kid who shouldn’t be on the field proves he’s a hero at heart—only with horses and sticks rather than balls and nets. So he practices, scoops up another partner in Chaucer himself (Paul Bettany) to use his florid speech to dupe the royalty putting on each tournament about William’s heritage, and inevitably finds himself becoming a champion. Enter the love interest and the challenger.
In fine high school fashion we meet the alluringly independent Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) who has to fall for our hero if only because he doesn’t belong enough to bother her with the same cheesy nonsense every other competitor shows in declaring their victories to her honor. As she is the cheerleader, the surly football captain is Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). An undefeated tournament champion who also leads his men into war with a bit of a bad amoral streak to boot, he sees Jocelyn as a prize to buy and William a speck of dirt to dismiss. And as it’s Europe in the 1300s rather than high school in the 90s, Adhemar is the pure blood any father of a woman like she would declare fit as a son-in-law. William, on-the-other-hand, is barely holding onto a lie.
While we can pretty much guess how everything will turn out as soon as this rivalry is struck, Helgeland is also conscious of this fact. Rather than try to mask it or package it differently to trick his audience, however, he decides to have fun with it instead. This is where the classic rock soundtrack comes in—not as overlaying, heart-pumping anthems but as actual songs adopted by the era. Queen is chanted, David Bowie‘s “Golden Years” is used as serenade during a dance scene, and Thin Lizzy‘s “The Boys Are Back in Town” serves as a blatantly on-the-nose commentary that earns a smile when pretending its moment isn’t trite would have attained a facepalm. The film embraces its shortcomings and wears them like a badge of honor not as parody but as pure comic relief.
This is how a character like Tudyk’s Wat can fly off the handle until he’s literally blowing a gasket and speaking gibberish while donning an outfit you would imagine someone wearing at Ozzfest today. It’s why Addy’s Roland can become the motherly voice of reason to smack them all upside the head when being stupid and Bettany’s Chaucer can be rewritten as a gambling addicted Cyrano de Bergerac helping William enchant both Jocelyn and the crowds willing to scream his name. The entire endeavor is one long joke to make its clichéd plotting acceptable. As long as we’re having a good time we don’t care if we know exactly what’s going to happen to ruin the ruse or save it. We’re more interested in what the characters are going to say next as we wait to watch Adhemar get beaten into submission.
Rounding out the cast are straight men archetypes in James Purefoy, Laura Fraser, and a young Bérénice Bejo of The Artist fame. They each play pawns servicing the story when necessary, but none are forgotten as bit players usually are. If anything Sossamon and Sewell prove the most forgettable if only because their roles are so by the numbers you have to believe it was intentional. They provide the love (with a razor sharp edge) and hatred (with buckets of bile) needed to turn Ledger’s William into a knight regardless of his past. And he, in turn, shows a charisma and presence few “heartthrobs” possess by owning the part comically and dramatically when asked upon. A Knight’s Tale therefore serves to be his coming out party as a bona fide actor and a highlight of his criminally short career.