A Knight’s Tale is the gleefully wrought tale of a poor thatcher’s son in the service of a knight, who promptly kicks the bucket three minutes before he is due to win big in a jousting tournament. Penniless and without any kind of future, William (Heath Ledger) takes the place of his employer. Realising he may be able to change his stars, and with the help of trusty companions Roland (Mark Addy – Game of Thrones, The Full Monty) Watt (Alan Tudyk – Firefly, Dodgeball) he becomes the hastily improvised ‘Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein’. From… uh… Gelderland. It’s far away. You haven’t heard of it. Yet.
As he rises through the tourney ranks, there is love, agony and some excellent dance routines (Yes, they break out the Bowie. Yes, in a medieval period drama. Yes, it’s awesome). The band of brothers expands to include Paul Bettany in an incredible turn as Geoffrey Chaucer himself and Laura Fraser (Casanova, Left Luggage) as Kate, a badass blacksmith widow. He falls in love with the wilfill Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), but in doing so makes an enemy of Lord Adhimar, played by Rufus Sewell (Dark City, The Illusionist), who serves some serious crazy eyes and works the scumbag angle so well you almost forget he’s gorgeous.
In a cast lead by Ledger, and including Addy, Sewell and Paul Freaking Bettany’s Naked Butt (twice) it’s hard to express how wonderfully the performances drive each other, and how fantastic the feel of the camaraderie is. No, it’s not Oscar worthy, but the group are so wonderfully in sync when it comes to just the right amount of gravity, heartfelt devotion and hilarious flippancy. They’re sarcastic, they’re looking for a laugh, and they’re genuine friends…well, sort of. Though the band know there will be hell to pay should they be found out, there’s enough love in this motley crew to get Will through his trials. Ledger brings you with him every step of the way and reminds you of the kid inside you that never set any limits on what they wanted to be; the supporting cast tickles you until you’re manic with the joyousness of it all; and in one of his best-ever performances, Bettany is only allowed to steal the show by a little bit.
This is more than impressive, considering Bettany has the job of bringing to life the author of The Knight’s Tale (one of twenty-four stories in The Canterbury Tales), on which the film is loosely based, though in the most extreme sense of the word. As in, “nothing is even vaguely the same except knights are involved.” Though it may not share a plot, A Knight’s Tale entirely accurately brings to life the humanity, the ridiculousness and the lewdness of The Canterbury Tales. Peppered with modern classics, such as ‘Boys Are Back in Town’, just to get you psyched; Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ (Bowie himself was shown the footage of arguably the greatest period dance number ever filmed and signed off on it immediately); and Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’, chanted by jousting fans with such ferocity that you see the football crowd inside them. As girls scream for Adhimar and Ulrich, the crazed R-Patz, Bieber and One Direction fans leap out at you. Suddenly the parallels are so clear – these were people, just like us, and they loved a boogie, a good game and a heartthrob just as much as we do.
To humanise a world so far away is a major feat, though the anachronistic style rubbed many critics the wrong way. As director Brian Helgeland explained, its all about creating something an audience can relate to, and really start to connect to those universal elements of being young, rebellious and out for a good time. Those real 14th century people would have felt the same way about their music as we do about our rock anthems, and we can’t forget that or we lose a connection to that world and we might not realise we’re further down a path fighting for the same things. We are all moved by Chaucer’s well-spun words; when he includes “everyone else here not sitting on a cushion” it’s an obvious nod to John Lennon’s “For the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands… and the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry” during a Beatles performance in 1963. Our heroes and our underdogs come round and around, the world remains unbalanced, but we’re always able to fight the power.
Anyone who’s attempted even a small section of the tome that is The Canterbury Tales will have been struck by the vivid characters and their rebellious natures – the way modern readers can find themselves and the people they know in each of them. These stories live on because it is in us all to challenge our boundaries, love and lust after the people we are lucky enough to encounter, to make a little mischief – to take a good look at what we’re told our life will be and decide that maybe a (wo)man can change their stars.