Director Guy Ritchie has found his Holy Grail. After the slapdash shenanigans of yore, he hits his stride with a brilliantly rough-and-ready retooling of the Arthurian myth that fits the requirements of today’s audiences like a gauntlet.
A gloriously visual and vibrant retelling of the oft-told legend, Ritchie’s tale of warlocks, Londinium docks and 2000 smoking arrows is undoubtedly his finest and most commanding movie to date.
Taking place in a world of knights in flaming armour, gigantic creatures and muscular magic this astonishing and stylised take on all things Camelot works because of the confident juxtaposition of hyper-reality with fantasy spectacle, the sly steals from Biblical and classic fables and the superior combination of the Mod with the medieval.
Charlie Hunnam just couldn’t be better as the reluctant “Born King” either, a diamond geezer for the Dark Ages, a rogue hero you effortlessly warm to throughout the hectic action adventure.
When King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is murdered by his wicked brother Vortigern (Jude Law) for the Camelot crown, baby Arthur floats, Moses-like, to England’s Roman capital, Londinium, and is found by a couple of prostitutes. Raised in their brothel and learning to become streetwise the hard way, he develops into a black market wheeler-dealer, clueless about his royal birthright.
But once forced by the laws of the land to try and pull the enchanted sword Excalibur from the stone, his true identity is revealed, and Vortigern vows to destroy him.
Rescued from execution by resistance leaders (Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillen) and brought up to speed about his heritage, it’s the Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a Merlin acolyte, who must convince Arthur to fight for his legacy and yank him out of self-denial. A rather poetic and beguiling interpretation of the Lady in the Lake helps too.
However Vortigern is getting more powerful by the minute thanks to mysterious mermaids in the castle cellars who expect him to pay the ultimate sacrifice – the “blood of love” – in order to up his paranormal quotient and vanquish his hated nephew once and for all.
Equally accomplished as Hunnam is Jude Law, a fabulously nasty and supernaturally ambitious Vortigern. The actor’s Shakespearean artistry has clearly set him in good stead here with the frightening intensity he brings to one of his career best roles.
A word, too, for Djimon Hounsou who always exudes dignity and gravitas, and Aiden Gillen as “Goosefat” Bill, none of those airy-fairy Lancelot or Gawain names here, thank you very much!
Yes, David Beckham does have a pointless cameo as a scarred security guard. But so does Ritchie as a landlord unwilling to let the resistance use his dwelling as an operations centre.
No matter those few lapses in judgement, King Arthur pays impressive dividends in both its coarse realism and mythic audaciousness. From the epic Mage battle opening, featuring colossal elephants and the voyage of self-discovery in the Darklands, where Arthur faces monster rats, bats and snakes, through the bare-knuckle and kung-fu fighting and climactic hack-and-slash duel, this wildly ambitious origin story zings with verve and vigour.
One great innovation is having Excalibur possess its rightful owner with forces beyond the imagination. All this is helped enormously by Daniel Pemberton’s propulsive score, which adds further layers of richness to the whole gritty and glittering endeavour.
Alongside the themes of camaraderie, solidarity, fairness and responsibility, Ritchie doesn’t stint on his signature flourishes, like the jump-cut fast forwards/backwards and hard-hitting editing. It’s all here in unexpected spades and, rather than distracting, enhances the bold-as-brass narrative playfulness.
Nor does he shy away from clear social and political commentary, neatly disguised as a high-speed hurtle through witty pop culture given a medieval jellied-eel spin.
Ritchie wants to give this clear starting point for sequels (it ends with the Round Table being constructed) his own distinctive cheeky chappie stamp, and he succeeds with his most potent and personal concoction.
Many will find the virtual absence of Merlin a strange omission. But he’s actually behind the camera here. For Ritchie is the wizard in full control of this panorama of human weaknesses and strengths, of sword and sorcery set against a stunning backdrop of marvel and wonder.
It’s curious how our myths change to suit current tastes, but here’s one that doesn’t devalue its source material, only enhances it with conviction and courage.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is released in cinemas on Friday 19 May
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news