Guy Ritchie brings to King Arthur:Legend of the Sword all the historical accuracy and respect for the original source that he brought to his Sherlock Holmes films. In other words, none at all. His King Arthur is a high octane showcase for digital effects which demonstrates that more is often less.
The story swiftly swings into action, the opening scenes showing Camelot under siege from the mages, those possessing magical gifts. The Britons, living in huts built on the backs of giant elephants, are led by King Uther (Eric Bana). Things don’t end well for Uther, courtesy of his conniving brother Vortigern (Jude Law) but he has the presence of mind to place his young son Arthur into a boat and push him off to relative safety.
Exposition comes thick and fast in Ritchie’s films, so Arthur’s upbringing is told in a rapid-fire montage complete with a thumping drum-based score from Daniel Pemberton.
Now a strapping fighting machine with a quick mind and a knack for thievery, our Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is living in Londinium. He’s been brought up in a brothel, and when one of the prostitutes who has raised him is attacked in a raid by a group of Vikings, it sends Arthur on a collision course with the group’s leader, Vortigern.
His capture and subsequent attempt to escape leads him to the legendary Excalibur sword set in stone which every adult male has been trying to wrench free. Arthur’s ability to seize the sword unleashes visions and powers that have lain dormant within him, as well as revealing his true identity to Vortigern.
From here, the violence, action, CGI and pounding score escalate even further. There is literally not a moment of quiet for the entire two hours. Some of the imagery actually very impressive. A scene where Arthur gives over to the visions inside him, and we witness dark, bark-coloured women merging into trees, is rather lovely. Throughout John Mathieson’s cinematography is incredibly crisp, accentuating deep shades of blue and gold.
The cast is pretty easy on the eye too. Ritchie can be relied upon to assemble a handsome roster of men in his films. Hunnam cuts an impressive figure in the titular role, but physicality aside, he doesn’t manage to make the leaden dialogue sound any better than it really is. Curiously, his former on-screen lover in Queer As Folk, Aiden Gillan, plays one of Arthur’s knights-in-the-making, Goosefat Bill.
Also typical of a Ritchie film, it’s very light on significant female parts. Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey is the only actress to have a substantial role, and even then she doesn’t actually have a name. She’s just ‘The Mage’ who has the ability to telepathically communicate with animals and rouse them into action.
This clearly isn’t a film that takes itself too seriously. Ritchie has fun with his usual tricks, the technique of layering backstories with quickfire multiple character narratives is again overused, and there’s a fair amount of anachronistic wise-cracking from the leads.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is about as close to the Arthurian legend as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but unfortunately nowhere near as entertaining.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is currently in national release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee