Perhaps not the Arthur we expected, or hoped for.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is Hollywood’s latest stab at the classic tale of knighthood and destiny – this time from Sherlock Holmes and Snatch director Guy Ritchie. And while the origin of Arthur and the story of sword in the stone have been done many times before, Ritchie tries hard to find enough meat on those bones to make a unique movie and imprint his own take on the tale. He’s unfortunately not entirely successful, and the film’s greatest crime is that it too often forgets the old adage of “show, don’t tell.”
Charlie Hunnam stars as the title character, who must learn to accept that he’s not just a petty criminal raised in a brothel but also the son of Eric Bana’s Uther Pendragon — and the one true King of England. The actor gives us an Arthur comfortable in his old, smaller life – one who finds this greater destiny forced upon him. Much of the film consists of his journey to being king, and Hunnam does his best to make it an interesting trip. (Also along for the ride are Djimon Hounsou and Aidan Gillen, who play outlaws and friends of Arthur’s. The actors are enjoyable to watch, even if the characters themselves remain too much of a mystery.)
Arthur is plagued by visions of Uther’s death every time he grips the magical Excalibur with two hands. This has haunted him for years, not that he understands the fragmented visions. So he winds up on a quest at the behest of Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s mysterious character known as The Mage to understand who he truly is and what the sword is showing him. But this is an example of how Ritchie runs into that show/don’t tell problem.
The Darklands sequence, from what is shown, seems like an adventure worth taking the audience on. This is not just a place with weird creatures Arthur must face — although it has that — it is where our hero looks to accept his destiny, even if he still is not entirely at peace with it. We’re denied the emotional experience of Arthur’s trials, which would’ve been great to see instead of having it explained to us.
Without a doubt, individual pieces of the movie work, including the film’s establishment of mages and magic. The CGI isn’t always great – particularly the depiction of the mysterious Syrens who deal with Jude Law’s baddie King Vortigern. But the world feels real and that’s saying something in a movie in which the titular sword offers Arthur extra-human powers. Yes, the exact nature of those powers is somewhat bewildering, but Legend of the Sword’s depiction of them is impressive, adding an epic sense to the moments in which Arthur takes up Excalibur.
Hunnam’s take on Arthur, however, should not be overlooked. One wonders just what kind of a king Hunnam’s Arthur becomes and how he would face any other moments from the Arthurian legend.