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Film Review: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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It’s true indeed that absolutely nobody asked for another King Arthur adaptation, but really we are so blessed that Guy Ritchie decided to make one anyway. That old, endlessly rebooted tale that’s seen more iterations than could fit round a round table? All it took was Ritchie’s magic touch to make it into undeniably the best action film of the year.

I promise I’ll get to the truly mind-blowing action in a moment, but I’m going to get my nerd on first. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Arthur legend is its many iterations from all over the country, and the oral tradition resulting in a canonical body of literature that’s constantly in flux. The art of storytelling itself is so key to the many stories surrounding Arthur, and Ritchie’s narrative style engages with the tradition in such a refreshing way. 

Fans of Ritchie’s will be familiar with the technique he uses where flashbacks occur as characters explain to each other recent events — the best without a doubt being Gerard Butler in the criminally underrated RocknRolla. Well, in King Arthur he uses this truly gut-busting effect to convey the mutable plurality of the narrative. Storytelling and memory are both active participants in the film, and there’s a recurring memory which has particularly powerful effect as something is added to it every time it’s shown. It’s such a brilliant engagement with the idea that orally transmitted stories are totally reliant on the memory of the storyteller, and therefore every time the story is told, there will be something different about it.

There’s one particular moment which I hope none of you get spoiled for, because it achieves what I thought was impossible: genuinely surprising the audience. We all watched BBC Merlin religiously (don’t try and deny it), we’ve all seen at least three versions of a King Arthur film, some of us even read versions of it, but Ritchie manages to invent one of the most emotionally weighty moments of the film in a very organic way.

Okay, enough pretentious stuff. Charlie Hunnam did a great job at playing a surprisingly down-to-earth, relatable Arthur. A classic cheeky British lad with banging muscles and a huge, uh, sword? What more could anyone ask for? The balance of banter and genuine compassion in his character effortlessly outdid all on-screen superheroes from the last decade in terms of likability. 

On the subject of out-doing superhero movies, someone tell the Marvel and DC execs that this is how you film dynamic action sequences! Shaky closeups for chase scenes, fluid and innovative camera work making fight scenes totally unpredictable, and best of all: montages! In every other becoming-a-hero story, the montages are blatantly a device used to speed along the boring bits, right? But Ritchie’s montages are so fresh and exciting. Fast-paced and explosive, with hammering soundtrack to match, each montage in this film added so much to the story as well as being some of the most visually exciting sequences in the film. He makes predictable and necessary plot points seem new and invigorating because … he’s a literal filmmaking genius.

To be honest, though visually stunning, the opening sequence does drag a little, but as the film hits its stride the pacing really is on point, helped along by the incredible soundtrack varying between haunting, possible-gaelic vocals and pumping instrumentals. Adding to the epic nature of the film were the incredible landscapes. All the locations in the movie are from around England, Scotland, and Wales, and knowing that Arthurian figures may well have really walked those forests and mountains only increases the authenticity.

The rest of Arthur’s gang each get their moments to shine. Djimon Hounsou, as he always seems to, plays a pretty standard role as one of the most important secondary characters — why does nobody ever give that dude a lead part? Also part of the team is Aiden Gillen, you know, Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, which was weird because I kept waiting for him to betray them. He just has a sneaky face. Neil Maskell (Humans) gets one of the standout moments of the film with the young Bieu Landau, who plays his son. 

As for female characters, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays a slightly wooden but very plot-necessary Mage. Though the animals she controls with her magic do look super CGI, the 3D effects are so cool it didn’t even bother me. Annabelle Wallis (Peaky Blinders) is mostly wasted, whilst Katie McGrath’s role is basically just a cameo. I hesitate to say that Poppy Delevigne was wasted in her role because I have no idea if she can actually act, but her part is tiny too. Let’s just say there were definitely too many women killed off in this film. No romance subplots though, so, you win some you lose some.

Anyway, speaking of cameos, putting a whole new contemporary twist on the theme of British legends, David Beckham popping up in the middle of the movie really does elevate it to a level of absurdist cinema never before reached in the mainstream. Let’s just say the poor guy won’t be winning any Oscars, but it was pretty funny.

Last but not least, Jude Law’s villainous uncle Vortigern balanced Eric Bana’s dashing Uther in a standard formulaic way. Quick-tongued slim evil brother vs. muscular bearded good brother — it’s like Loki and Thor, Scar and Mufasa, you get the picture. Vortigern’s a pretty far cry from The Young Pope though, so if you’ve just come off binging that then it’s a real trip. Law does a good job with the surprisingly complex emotional arc of the character. The Law/Ritchie team up did just make me yearn for Sherlock Holmes 3 though. Fingers crossed King Arthur gets a sequel and Ritchie doesn’t leave us hanging again.

Overall this really is the most fun movie you’ll have seen all year. Give yourselves a break from studying, treat yourselves to this electric romp through British legend. It really does have something for everybody. 

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is out in UK cinemas May 19th. 

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