A Knack for Anachronism
When exactly did Hollywood decide the Middle Ages were so filthy? I blame Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Once upon a time we had lovely shiny knights in primary colours, but now every excursion to medieval times seems to take place in a sea of mud with everyone either caked in the stuff or covered in rust. Well, maybe John Boorman's Excalibur is an honourable exception, but you see my point. It certainly applies to Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale, an enjoyably frivolous movie with a bizarre new take on the genre.
It's the story of a peasant named William Thatcher (the audibly Australian Heath Ledger). When their noble boss dies of dysentery, he and his fellow commoners hit upon a cunning plan - Ledger enters jousting tournaments (supposedly the most popular leisure activity of the age) using the deceased's armour, and they all split the prize money. There is of course the drawback that only the nobility are allowed to compete, but fortunately they encounter a down-on-his-luck scribe (Paul Bettany) willing to forge Ledger's aristocratic credentials. This is supposed to be Geoffrey Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales fame, so listen out for a grinding, rotating sort of noise if you live anywhere near his grave. Ledger is, inevitably, rather successful, and as the tale progresses he meets a beautiful princess (the audibly American Shannyn Sossamon, who can't act, but is so easy on the eye she doesn't have to bother) and a suitably wicked villain who wears black all the time (Rufus Sewell).
The pitch for this movie was probably along the lines of 'Gladiator meets Shakespeare in Love' - it has the martial pomposity of the former and the broad humour of the latter. It all takes place in a generic medieval Europe that combines details from Arthurian legend with architecture from the Tudor period, and the end result is about as historically convincing as an episode of The Flintstones. But it doesn't really need to be as this is no more or less than a fun romp. There are no great surprises or insights but a lot of good jokes and the odd touching moment. There's rock-solid thesping support from Mark Addy as a squire, Bettany's performance as Chaucer is witty, and Laura Fraser is good as a female blacksmith who joins the gang. If it has a real flaw, it's that one joust looks very much like another and the director runs out of original ways to film them quite early on. I enjoyed it a lot, far more than I expected to, as I only wound up going to see it because the cinema wasn't showing Rush Hour 2.
Not long after, I trundled along to see Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge, and the two films have a good deal in common. Like A Knight's Tale, Moulin Rouge is a period piece, and also like A Knight's Tale, it features a supposedly historical character in a supporting role. It's the story of naive young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor in his best role for some time), who in the year 1900 moves to Paris. He befriends a group of Bohemian artists, including Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) - that'll be another spinning celebrity corpse, then - who want to put on a show at the famous (and titular) Moulin Rouge nightspot, run by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). A misunderstanding during a visit to the club leads to Christian and star attraction Satine (a glacially beautiful Nicole Kidman) falling in love, after she initially mistakes him for a rich Duke who's considering financing the refurbishment of the club. When the real Duke (Richard Roxburgh, who does a pretty good impression of the late Terry-Thomas) turns up he agrees to stump up the cash provided he gets, ahem, exclusive access to Satine, if you follow my meaning. Will true love triumph?
Moulin Rouge is, and let's be honest about this, completely insane. This being a Baz Luhrman film, restraint and naturalism were escorted from the cinema before the opening credits rolled. For the first twenty minutes I felt pinned back into my seat by the overwhelming, frenetic audio-visual onslaught - crash zooms, jump-cuts, slo-mo, freeze frames, crane shots, mixes, Luhrman uses them all - but eventually either the film calmed down a bit or I acclimatised to it. Probably the latter, with hindsight, as the story slowly changes from broad farce to tragic melodrama as it goes on, the transition being flawlessly executed. It's all been art-directed to within an inch of its life, zips along with elan to spare, and in its early stages is often very funny. Most of the jokes are broad, though, and many of the laughs come from deliberate incongruities - when McGregor starts singing the theme to The Sound of Music, or Kylie Minogue's cameo as the Absinthe fairy (barely credibly, she's dubbed by metal legend Ozzy Osbourne).
This use of deliberate anachronism is the most striking similarity between A Knight's Tale and Moulin Rouge. In A Knight's Tale it takes a number of forms - at the 'Jousting World Championships' all the peasants behave like football supporters. Chaucer, as a herald, hypes up his master as if he's a WWF wrestler. Several contemporary songs feature on the soundtrack. My favourite moment of the movie is a deliriously exuberant sequence at a banquet where everyone starts gettin' on down to David Bowie's Golden Years. But in the end it's just a device to boost the fun quotient in a film that has absolutely no aspirations to be taken seriously.
There are lots of pop songs in Moulin Rouge too, deliberately famous ones - songs by Elton John, by Queen, by Nirvana, and - once again - by Bowie, who should have a good week on the royalties front. We get to see Jim Broadbent in a ginger shock-wig and (one hopes) padded fat-suit doing a full-on song and dance version of Madonna's Like A Virgin, for example - just take a moment to mull that image over. Admittedly, the musical director appears to have been Darius from Popstars, so weird are some of the arrangements, but these are still familiar, stirring tunes, and, crucially, they're central to the story's development. However, the reason for their use, as opposed to a more conventional means of character development, is unclear. Is Luhrman trying to say something about the power of popular song? Is it a strange emotional shorthand? Is it an attempt to draw parallels between the decadence of the Moulin Rouge and that of our own society? Or is it just done purely for laughs and novelty value? It's really impossible to tell. More importantly, so studiously artificial is the conceit, along with the rest of the setting, that it creates a real distance between audience and story. This is by no means a bad film; it's visually astonishing, the performances are great, and the music's often stirring - but it's very hard to engage with the characters and story on an emotional level. One is left with a whirling, staggering, multicoloured dervish that captivates the senses but doesn't stir the passions. Like one of its' characters, Moulin Rouge is beautiful, but with a cold heart. This was probably inevitable, but it's still a shame.