Game of Thrones has a lot to answer for. How could any fantasy film of recent years not be compared to the television epic? The trouble for movie makers is how high GoT has set the bar, in terms both of popularity and of quality. Its brand of graphic violence and sex, utter menace and intrigue, and its “we don’t know who’s going to die next” storylines have kept millions on the edge of their seats for six years now, and counting.
Still, film director Guy Ritchie has stepped into the fray, with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. He brings some of his usual flourish to the visuals, and with a reported $175 million budget to play with, there’s nothing wrong with the effects. Ritchie does inject sass into the well known story line with his fast-editing brand of combining humour and action sequences, but sadly the end result falls a little flat. Dealing as it does with the politics of royal power, magic and sword fights aplenty, the comparison with GoT is inevitable. This is especially so since two GoT actors are in the cast. Aiden Gillen here is Goosefat Bill, but we also know him from Westeros as the master plotter Little Finger. And Michael McElhatton plays Jack’s Eye in the film, but in the Seven Kingdoms not long ago was the betrayer of the Starks, Lord Bolton. These two actors may have been included to beef up King Arthur’s fantasy credentials, but for me they only heightened the gap between the film and the television programme.
Similarly if your taste is for the gritty edge of GoT, then King Arthur will likely not satisfy. There’s plenty of fighting but little blood, and no sex or profanity. And I don’t think the film portrays its menace as well, despite the efforts of Jude Law as the bad guy, King Vortigern. Giving Vortigern a Nazi-esque salute to deliver almost made me burst into laughter. At other times, with the arc following Arthur’s acceptance of his destiny, it was a by-the-numbers affair. Dare I say it, it felt a little dull at times.
Still, King Arthur’s PGR approach might make the film much more appealing to some, so all well and good. It does in a way run like a matinee adventure flick of old. Charlie Hunnan tries to mix his muscled and swarthy appeal with a London sense of humour and, in the end, a good old British call to duty.
But let’s return to what Ritchie does particularly well, which is entertain with his fast edited, off-beat action and comedy sequences. They work well here again, and certainly they had people laughing in the cinema. The aforementioned Jack’s Eye quizzing Arthur and his mates at their lair early on was genuinely funny. David Beckham popped up and caught everyone by surprise, and I thought delivered his lines with no little comic timing.
Problem was, it felt like there was too much levity to take the drama seriously, and not enough comedy to make it a full blown comic romp. And perhaps another genre was trying to sneak into the mix here too, as the grand battle at the end was delivered to screen almost like a superhero battle.
One of the secrets to the success of a long running television series lies in its ability to develop characters and storylines in detail and over time, allowing an audience to build real affection, or loathing, for the players involved. That doesn’t make it easy for a movie to compete, even a two hour one like King Arthur. It’s diverting enough, but hardly memorable.