Seen at the Movies:

King Arthur

is a telling of the Arthurian story without the magic and without the adultery. Purporting to be based on real sources rather than legend, Antoine Fuqua’s entertaining film is never more hokey than when it’s trying to pass itself off as historical, but it does have a vivid feeling for life in the fifth century, and the Irish locations are appropriately foggy and bleak. In this version Arthur (Clive Owen) is a half-Roman, half-Briton general confined with his knights (including Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot and Ray Winstone as Bors) to a remote outpost of the Empire that nobody but the natives and the invading Saxons really wants to own. Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is a leader of the northern “Woad” tribes and Arthur’s enemy, and Guinevere (Keira Knightley) also hails from these wild people, who smear their bodies with war paint and make fearsome sounds. Lancelot casts a couple of longing looks at Guinevere, but otherwise keeps his distance. (I would too—the tough-fighting Knightley looks like she wants to take chomps out of everything in sight, even if her teeth are improbably white and well cared for.) The Saxons vie with the Woads for most medieval looking creatures on screen—such actors as Stellan Skarsgard and Til Schweiger sport incomparably outré hairstyles and beards (Schweiger’s extends in one long braid about a foot from his chin). Particular kudos are due key make-up artist Ailbhe Lemass and key hairstylist Dee Corcoran.

King Arthur on the big screen. Photo Jonathan Hession/Buena Vista Pictures

One thing that’s refreshing about King Arthur is that, apart from Knightley’s teeth, few concessions are made to Hollywood notions of grooming and cleanliness, not to mention picturesque sets and pretty pictures. Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography is perhaps too gray and lacking in contrast, but it successfully conveys the harshness of the setting. And production designer Dan Weil comes up with dank castles and dirty hovels that no one would want to move into. Costume designer Penny Rose and her crew do a superb job with the heavily detailed leathers and skins and furs, and armourer Tommy Dunne creates unusually convincing looking medieval weaponry. I did miss the story’s mystical underpinnings, however. And though Clive Owen’s Arthur is very comely to gaze upon, he’s more than a bit of a stick. He seems ready to be cuckolded, even if the movie doesn’t oblige.--John Calhoun