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A KNIGHT’S TALE - Review by Bill Nichols

Photograph from A Knight's TaleHow do we deal with the past?  That somewhat heady question gets a pretty straightforward answer in the new film, A KNIGHT’S TALE:  Treat it like the present.  Take a young guy who wants to better himself, add a young woman who admires his pluck, mix in a physical challenge of the sort we might find on a future Survivor’s show, say, jousting, and finish it off with a nemesis, an egotistic, underhanded son of a blank and you have a tale of yesteryear that could just as well be today.  Then again, it could be anytime, anywhere.  This isn’t history we’re talking about here, even if the film is set in 13th century England.  It is a mythical past that never existed and yet continues to exist to this day.  It is a time out of time, the time of dreams and reverie, wishes and hopes.  Eternal time.  This is how the past becomes the present.  It never really was past in the first place.  It is that shadow time of “what ifs” and “if onlys” with which we amplify the harsh reality around us by subjecting it to fantasy.  A prolonged daydream in this case, one designed to satisfy the wishful longings of young men everywhere.

Photograph from A Knight's TaleOn the one hand this makes A KNIGHT’S TALE somewhat unusual: it is aimed at late adolescents and young men who can dream of both the adventure and the love together, putting its intended audience at least 6-10 years older than the average film.  On the other hand, A KNIGHT’S TALE isn’t too unusual at all: it is a familiar myth and a comfortable fantasy that we have seen many times before.  What makes one telling of a myth better than another?  Is A KNIGHT’S TALE one of those stories of adolescent achievement that enters into our popular memory as the perfect embodiment of all we dream for?  Is it the new Horatio Alger or a fresher version of David and Goliath?  The unhappy answer is, No.  Partly because our filmmakers have taken the past and mixed it with an all too familiar present that will soon become, itself, past.  The stadium “waves” and the chants of “We will rock you,” the hip jargon and the designer outfits of our fair damsel will also soon bear the unmistakable imprint of Early 21st Century rather than the timeless realm of mythic enchantment.  This is not a world of men in togas or men in tights that could become, in later times, the target of parody: it is already a parody, but one that depends too heavily on the here and now to make its point.

Photograph from A Knight's TaleParody, though, there is and some of it is quite amusing.  There is considerable good play on the issues of ancestry and pedigree as a measure of character, with our dastardly villain being of far more noble birth than our genuine hero.  Proof of ancestry, something that could be taken for granted in a landed society of property and place, becomes a clouded issue here, much as it is today.  Lineage must be proven by charts and family trees; these provide tangible proof of where strangers come from, of their rights and privileges, much as our driver’s licenses and credit cards do today.  A KNIGHT’S TALE makes good use of our considerable familiarity with anonymity to allow its hero to rise to a station that should be barred to him.  Of course, he is of sufficiently noble soul to reject the temptation to abuse his rise.  His heart remains pure despite success, and in these days of economic downturn and dot.com failure, that may be a lesson in humility that has its value for the present day.  A KNIGHT’S TALE is neither a tall tale nor a tiresome one; it is a pleasing amusement, and with this it seems quite content.  Looking at movies that look at the world, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Bill Nichols.

c 2001 Bill Nichols