King Arthur: Legend of the Sword review – this sword stays in its stone

Charlie Hunnam struggles to lead Guy Ritchie’s geezers of the Round Table in a flashy but callow origin story from which little may arise.

Nick Pinkerton

from our forthcoming July 2017 issue

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

It’s very far from toppling co-regents Bresson and Boorman from the thrones of Arthurian cinema, but it’s still possible to eke some fleeting pleasure from Guy Ritchie’s bombastic King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, whose only hope for immortality is to be embraced by the world’s population of gravity bong owners. The first step is to banish all thought of Sir Thomas Malory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from memory – Ritchie and co-scenarists Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold certainly have. There’s a Lady in the Lake and a sword in a stone and all of that, of course, but much of the other recognisable material is a hotchpotch of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, Masters of the Universe cartoons, Robin Hood, Ron Howard’s Willow (1988), one Reservoir Dogs gag and dollops of Ritchie-isms.

The elevator pitch, I suppose, went something like this: “OK, imagine King Arthur, but a chav.” The film’s Arthur – played by Charlie Hunnam, making full use of his three expressions and over-enunciating his heart out – is no peasant naïf thrust into the spotlight of destiny, but comes up in a rough-and-tumble brothel near London Bridge. The film’s Londinium, a warren of back alleys put to good use in a chase setpiece, is a bustling port city populated by all races of the world – that is to say, a city in which contemporary London is reflected – and Hunnam and his mates are a crew of hustlers very much in the mould of Early Ritchie, whose whipcrack pacing is evident in the preponderance of narrated flashback-and-forward montages.

I must confess that even in the high heady days of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels I didn’t have much time for Ritchie’s showboat cinema – in the late 1990s you could scarcely go to the movies without a Ritchie or a Liman or a Fincher wielding their high style like a truncheon. Today, however, there is some distinction in the fact that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a multiplex behemoth that appears to have been directed by an individual, not a committee.

Jude Law as Vortigern

Jude Law as Vortigern

This may sound like faint praise. That’s because it is. While occasionally succeeding on the level of pure spectacle – there’s a giant snake-conjuring accompanied by the appearance of some wood nymphs that’s a humdinger – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword never satisfactorily marries the mythic to the human. Part of the problem is Hunnam’s inadequacy as leading man, which likewise hamstrung James Gray’s otherwise incalculably superior The Lost City of Z. There it was Robert Pattinson that Hunnam evaporated next to; here it’s the cruel, clammy Vortigern, played by Jude Law, who has made something of a habit of being disconcertingly good in movies that are otherwise nearly free of merit.

Perhaps even more dire, Ritchie’s movie is handicapped by its obedience to the rules of modern franchising, putting aside much of the most potent Arthurian lore to instead tell a protracted Round Table origin story, laying the foundations for a multi-film series that very possibly won’t even come to be. Arthur, at the very least, fares somewhat better in Ritchie’s hands than did poor Sherlock Holmes. At this rate, is even Miss Marple safe?

 

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