Film review: Guy Ritchie’s overblown King Arthur epic lives by the sword
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Aidan Gillen, Djimon Hounsou, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
Everything in Guy Ritchie’s latest movie is big. A CGI-heavy take on the legend of the fifth-century British leader, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a film that comes in one size: extra large.
The giant elephants with wrecking balls swinging from their trunks. The tower reaching for the sky. The huge serpent coils into a castle. And, especially, Daniel Pemberton’s relentlessly booming score, which is enough to shake the foundations of any cinema.
Ritchie clearly loves the Arthurian tales – of Mordred, Merlin et al. But despite the ancient setting, he seems determined to make a very contemporary fantasy, full of high-speed action, fast-cuts and cameras panning. Recalling his frenetic take on Sherlock Holmes, mixed with the bare-faced cheek of his debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, King Arthur is a messy mix of styles.
To be fair, it starts well. A steely-eyed Eric Bana plays the ruler Uther Pendragon, betrayed by his power-grabbing brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who is not afraid to get blood on his hands. Uther’s young son Arthur escapes and, as the credits roll, Ritchie concocts a smart montage depicting how this future king grows up, sheltered in a house of ill repute and learning to fight on the streets.
The grown-up Arthur is played by Charlie Hunnam, recently seen as real-life adventurer Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z. Here, he is a restless ruffian who reluctantly finds his calling when he pulls the sword Excalibur from its stone sheath, alerting ruthless Vortigern that here is the one destined to wrestle power from him.
“You’re quickly becoming a legend,” he tells Arthur.
Set to be executed, Arthur stages a daring escape – with help from an animal-whispering mage played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey and some not-so-merry men (including Aidan Gillen and Djimon Hounsou).
Unaware of his royal lineage, Arthur has no desire for power, but after Vortigern destroys everything he owns, he is forced into action against the king.
Hunnam handles the physical demands of the role well enough, impressing with his fighting style, but there is not much emotion in his performance. It’s all about bruising encounters, not psychological insight. Law is more effective, playing his role with understated menace.
“When people fear you, really fear you, it is the most intoxicating sensation,” he says.
As the film rumbles on, and Vortigern tries to increase his power by committing the ultimate chilling sacrifice, Ritchie loses control. Cranking up the volume on Pemberton’s hugely overused Celtic-influenced score, he sends in the visual-effects wizards and his editing team to glue together a patchy story. It doesn’t really work.
The air of mystery that surrounded, say, John Boorman’s take on Arthur – Excalibur – is nowhere to be found.
Teenagers looking for an action spectacular might enjoy this, but it is unlikely to inspire them to read about King Arthur in a textbook. This is supposed to be the first in a series of six movies, but on this evidence, audience fatigue will set in very quickly.