Blithe humor and a sense of chivalrous adventure exalt the whimsical A Knight’s Tale above the grim “realism” of its counterparts, capturing the zeitgeist of the Middle Ages without allowing the propensity for violence to overshadow the evolution of character. By substituting classic rock and contemporary arena culture for omnipresent barbarity, Brian Helgeland has transformed the period piece into pop confection, demonstrating the analogous nature of history instead of exploiting cultural differences at the behest of latter-day sanctimony.
Beyond his playful injections of anachronistic ephemera, Helgeland manages to insert his source of inspiration directly into the action, personifying Geoffrey Chaucer’s irreverent, innuendo-laden authorial voice through Paul Bettany’s magniloquent and sarcastic performance. Not unlike Pier Paolo Pasolini’s reinterpretation of Chaucer as amused overseer in The Canterbury Tales, Helgeland treats the father of English literature as charlatan and gambler, plying his poetry as master forger and hype man for a peasant in knight’s armor.
Masquerading as a jouster for filthy lucre and the affection of a modish sport enthusiast, William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) rides in place of his deceased liege, falsifying “papers of nobility” and a globe-trotting backstory with the help of Chaucer’s flowery boasting and a forward-thinking female blacksmith. Despite a painless ascension to the top of his field, conflict ultimately contaminates William’s “rags to riches” scheme, embodied by a ruthless blueblood (Rufus Sewell) keen to bed his object of affection (Shannyn Sossamon) and act as the classist thorn in his blue-collar side.
Spiking these well-worn narrative tropes with comedic levity and editorial flair, Helgeland avoids slipping into self-seriousness by allowing William’s squires to act as the chorus, their jests and squabbles furnishing the film’s bouts of slapstick and covert attempts at profundity. Their sincerest moments stem from immense loss, as recollections of fruitless affairs pepper William’s letters of love, revealing that a lifetime of servitude even renders memory as property of the kingdom.
This adherence to honest portrayals of fictional characters imbues the central romance with the self-absorption and cruelty common in youthful courtship, failing only when confusing submission with endearment. Bouts of dissent between the couple also merely function to intensify passions before a rousing Londonian finale, standing out as erroneous and overly emotional in the face of Helgeland’s jocular employment of cliché (see turkey leg vendors, joust hooligans, “the wave”).
Yet, for every familiar story beat and err in judgment, Helgeland boasts a marvel of imagination, epitomized by a ballroom dance sequence that fuses maneuvers of ancient refinement with the liberated, sensual grooves of David Bowie’s “Golden Years.” This marriage of organic majesty and conscious artificiality reflects modernity in thought instead of superficial appearance, drawing parallels outside of era, carried within the strands of our DNA.
A Knight’s Tale (Columbia Pictures, 2001)
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Written by Geoffrey Chaucer (“The Knight’s Tale”) and Brian Helgeland (screenplay)
Photographed by Richard Greatrex
We'd like to thank Kiss Them Goodbye for the high-res screengrabs!