Joust in Time

Heath Ledger, the young Australian actor who played Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot and stars in A Knight’s Tale, has a winning stalwartness. The ad for the film features an immense close-up of him and the words “He Will Rock You,” but Ledger’s appeal is more offhand than that: He’s more of a robust balladeer than a rocker. Writer-director Brian Helgeland is aiming for a hip medieval romp replete with up-to-date anachronisms in the script and on the soundtrack, and Ledger complies by giving the movie’s best moments a raffishly heroic quality easily encompassing the medieval and the modern.

Ledger’s straight-ahead, uncomplicated presence also serves as an antidote to much that is overbearing about the movie. Clearly the actor is being positioned by Hollywood as the new youth heartthrob – “He Will Rock You” has the force of a no-nonsense directive – and A Knight’s Tale panders blatantly to its young audience. Ledger’s lowborn William, a thatcher’s son who disguises himself as a nobleman in order to fulfill his boyhood dream of jousting, is a kind of Middle Ages rock star with groupies thronging his way, a pair of buddies (Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk) acting as roadies, a P.R. agent in the guise of the young Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), and an adoring maiden (Shannyn Sossamon) shooting him smoldering glances from the box seats. His jousting tournaments are staged like Super Bowl extravaganzas, and the soundtrack brings in, among other rock anthems, Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” and War’s “Low Rider.”

The point of all this, of course, is that the fourteenth century was just as glitzy and starstruck as our own, but it’s not a point requiring an entire movie to make, and it’s too clever by half. Instead of pulling young audiences imaginatively back into the past, A Knight’s Tale cheapens the process by demonstrating that there’s no essential difference between then and now. Kids don’t have to bring anything special to this movie; it all comes to them. The biggest stretch is probably that arena-rock soundtrack, which may seem as antiquated to teens as Gregorian chant.

Brian Helgeland directed Payback and has a screenwriting credit on L.A. Confidential and the underrated Conspiracy Theory. Surely he’s too sophisticated a talent not to recognize the opportunism behind his current project. The medieval getups and hairdos seem designed to set fashion trends, and for all its hipness, the movie serves up some awfully old chestnuts: William’s father lectures him on how a man can change his stars, his highborn paramour declares her love for him even after discovering his lowborn status, and so on. Helgeland probably regards these storytelling tropes as golden oldies and a counterpart to his soundtrack, but he’s also banking on the likelihood that his young audience isn’t terribly familiar with all those musty plot devices. Filmmakers with a deep sense of film history can pile on the corn, and young viewers, whose movie knowledge generally extends back for, at most, a decade, are none the wiser. For the rest of us, a cliché is a cliché is a cliché, whether the time be 2001 or 1301.

Lord Glenconner (a.k.a. Colin Tennant) is a British nobleman who bought the tiny barren island of Mustique in the Caribbean in 1958 as a gift for his wife and turned it into a jet-set playground before selling it in the seventies and retreating, debt-ridden, to St. Lucia. In The Man Who Bought Mustique (at Film Forum), the documentarians Vikram Jayanti and Joseph Bullman accompany Glenconner back to Mustique for a rare reappearance there, and we’re treated to the lord’s full repertoire of kingly snits and weary sighs. Traipsing about in the heat in his cottony whites and broad hat, he snaps orders to the mostly black laborers who are there to erect a tented pavilion for the arrival of his good friend Princess Margaret; out of earshot, he whispers to the camera crew, “They’re all so frightfully slow and stupid.” But Glenconner, who looks a bit like a bleached-out Nicol Williamson, is an equal-opportunity scourge: The mostly American millionaires currently residing in Mustique are referred to, within earshot, as “social-climbing worms.” For Glenconner, everyone is a commoner until proven otherwise. As with so many idle rich, his rampages reflect someone who was never reared to rein in his own bad manners. Glenconner’s only deference is shown toward Margaret, but even there, all is not well: The tent in which she lunches has been draped by the lord with Kama Sutra-style hangings (the princess looks less titillated than pole-axed), and there is a marvelous moment when he boasts about having had 48 consecutive meals with the Royal Stiff and then, in response to an off-camera question about what there was to talk about, responds wearily, “I know. That’s the trouble.” As a portrait of a poisonous toff, The Man Who Bought Mustique is almost too perfect. Glenconner is such a class-conscious caricature that he doesn’t need the filmmakers to do him in; he does a sterling job all by himself.

In brief: Town & Country wasn’t so much released to the public as it was sprung on us; this egregious comedy, with its well-documented and woeful history of production troubles dating back several years, sets up a cast that includes Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Garry Shandling and then proceeds to knock them down like ducks in a shooting gallery… . Eureka, written and directed by Shinji Aoyama, is nearly four hours of melancholia. Filmed in color and printed on black-and-white, it’s about the repercussions for its survivors of the violent hijacking of a bus in a small town in southwestern Japan. Aoyama has a good eye for wide-screen composition, but his existential odyssey is so attenuated and aloof that he turns suffering into an art thing… . In François Ozon’s Sous Le Sable, Charlotte Rampling plays a woman whose husband inexplicably disappears during a beach vacation. His vanishing, and its aftermath, is creepily evocative. Modish as the film sometimes is, Ozon demonstrates a genuine feeling for loss.

A Knight’s Tale
Starring Heath Ledger.
The Man Who Bought Mustique
Documentary by Vikram Jayanti and Joseph Bullman.

Joust in Time