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The story of King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) has taken multiple manifestations throughout the centuries. Dating back to the 14th century, the knights of the round table have captivated book readers, stage productions and movie fans. Due to the depth of canon of these characters, each historical interpretation has the potential to find its source material from different authors and different points in the fantastical world of Camelot. Director Guy Ritchie goes back on the timeline of the life of Arthur and puts his own unique spin on this legendary figure. The question is will his visceral and abrupt stylings work in the world of knights, swords and fantasy?
Arthur is the heir apparent to the throne of Camelot, but before he matures to manhood and takes his place in history, his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) has his parents murdered. In a Moses-like journey down the English river to Londinium he is found by women who are doing the washing in the waters and he is taken into their care. He is raised in the local brothel and learns about what life is like on the streets. His education is provided in the observation as a street urchin where he learns how to fight, skilfully acquire money, lead men and gain the respect of women.
While Arthur develops his skills of leadership and wisdom, Vortigern grows in his power at Camelot and attempts to re-introduce the dark magic of the Mages. During this time of political and magical growth, powerful spiritual forces reveal the sword of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). The mystical weapon is wedged deep in a rock and can only be removed by the true blood heir to the throne. Vortigern’s army searches far and wide for the son of Uther and inadvertently they discover Arthur and bring him to Camelot. When he is presented with the opportunity to release the sword from its stone prison, Arthur’s legend begins and leads him to determine if he going to be part of the battle for Camelot.
Guy Ritchie has a history of extreme highs and exceptional depths in his directorial career. It can be said that he is willing to take risks and try various methods of storytelling to attempt to capture the attention of audiences with varying degrees of success. His particular style worked well with Sherlock Holmes and Snatch, but not so well in Swept Away. His latest venture takes him into the world of fantasy and King Arthur, which seems to lead to a cinematic creation that falls right in the middle of the road. There were some strong elements that are accompanied by extraordinary missteps.
A highlight of Ritchie films can be found in the quick wit, delivery and dialogue of the leading cast members. Charlie Hunnam has the swagger and talent to deliver this hyper-banter and proves to be a good choice for the English sovereign. He does not have the presence of Robert Downey Jr in Warner Brothers’ Sherlock Holmes series, but he shows that he has the presence to carry the film along. When the focus is on the back and forth of his motley crew and their discourses with the opposing forces, the film works and makes for an enjoyable ride. This partnered with Ritchie’s trademark method of physicality, which can be an adjustment for many, it delivers some of the better elements.
These verbal and visual highlights, unfortunately, are countered with an inexcusable story pacing, disjointed cinematography and a poorly cast villain. Ritchie does manage to employ his kinetic styling, but inexplicably slows the pace of the overall experience. The action sequences are energetic, but they get bogged down the darkness of the scripting. This is exacerbated by his desire to add his signature touches of quick timeline edits, which leads to a level of motion sickness during Arthur’s journey into the darklands and his discovery of his true identity. This does add some vitality to the story, but the sudden stoppages cause some cinematic whiplash. These elements can be explained away through the analysis of the director’s preferences, but the ingredient that lets the whole film down is Jude Law. He has contributed to many films as an adequate supporting character in the past, but he fails to represent the villain that is needed to battle the future king. His physical presence and delivery undermine the believability of his ascension to power and weaken the delivery of the film.
Fans of Guy Ritchie may be able to excuse some of the weaker elements of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Charlie Hunnam does show that he can be an effective leading man. The challenge for this fantasy excursion boils down to whether there is enough good to outweigh the bad. The reality is that the poor execution outweighs the stronger elements of the film. Unfortunately, fans of King Arthur and Hunnam and Ritchie will have to wait another day to see this king ascend to the cinematic throne.