King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is, more often than not, a half-baked mess. It’s built from creative choices that should, in theory, produce an exciting, distinctive movie. But in practice, Legend of the Sword repeatedly stabs itself in the foot with its own over-designed version of Excalibur. Director Guy Ritchie deploys his trademark breezy, snarky crime-centric storytelling both through and alongside grand Arthurian moments, which could have created a thrilling, distinct movie. Unfortunately, Legend of the Sword’s tones are balanced poorly, and compete with, rather than complement each other. The film lurches from Arthur, here raised as a street-smart commoner (Charlie Hunnam) merrily putting a band of cruel Vikings in their place to his watching a childhood friend die at the order of his evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) and back again with all the grace and care of a wounded antelope. And when Legend of the Sword isn’t inconsistent, it’s often dull.
Hunnam’s turn in The Lost City of Z is my favorite male lead performance of 2017 so far. But where Percy Fawcett gave him a chance to push himself and dive deep into the explorer’s complex drives, Arthur mostly strands Hunnam with bland macho posturing and brooding. He repeatedly bounces between accepting and rejecting Excalibur and the necessity of overthrowing his uncle, primarily to ensure that there’s space for more angst, since angst was believed to be enough to sell tickets. Legend of the Sword’s frustrating conception of Arthur sums up its failings as a movie overall. It takes one of the most iconic stories in human history, remixes parts of it ways that could be incredibly exciting and interesting and then mostly executes them in a colorless (sometimes literally, given the movie’s washed-out palate) and haphazard fashion.
Despite its bedraggled execution and its bafflingly tiny title card, I cannot and do not want to write off Legend of the Sword as a complete misfire. Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack is gorgeous, rivaling the magnificent work he did on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., his previous collaboration with Ritchie. I’m particularly taken with the climactic “The Power of Excalibur.” While too much of Legend of the Sword’s interpretation of Arthurian lore is ironed flat, its approach to magic is genuinely impressive. And, when Ritchie and his collaborators build on that decision and embrace the mystical, mythical nature of the story they’ve chosen to tell, Legend of the Sword sings.
Magic in Legend of the Sword is unsettling, physical and undeniably real. Vortigern’s demonic Frank Frazetta Knight form may be a big murky pile of pixels, but the rite he performs to take the form is simple and horribly eerie. He must murder someone he loves, and relinquish their body to the syrens, watching as they drag his wife and then daughter into the bottomless depths of their hidden pool while their dark power fills him. Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey’s nameless mage takes command of animals through telepathy that looks genuinely strenuous, and which shifts her eyes from human to those of whichever species she’s currently dominating. It’s distinctive and striking, particularly during the picture’s climax, where she moves from an eagle to a snake to a GIGANTIC snake. But of all the magic in Legend of the Sword, nothing matches the Lady of the Lake, the focus of the movie’s single best scene and the inspiration for this article:
Everything about the Lady of the Lake’s sequence works astonishingly, to the point that the movie’s muddle briefly becomes something clear and potent. The dark color palate fits first Arthur’s despair and then the unearthly space of the Lady’s realm, and it makes Excalibur’s ignition stand out all the more. Hunnam gets a chance to play through sorrow, grief, fear and ultimately acceptance, all silently, all motivated by his character’s history, rather than the vague brooding the movie otherwise insists upon. Pemberton’s beautiful score complements and strengthens the images it accompanies. Even the Lady of the Lake’s dialogue stands out as exceptional.
She does not have a lengthy speech about who she is and why it is imperative that Arthur listen to her. There is no explanation of her nature. We do not learn how she is able to pull Arthur into her realm from a mud puddle. She just does. Rather than reading like poor writing, the Lady’s enigmatic nature works in Legend of the Sword’s favor. She is a force that’s well beyond humanity, one who sees the world not in terms of destiny or right but in terms of simply what is, and makes that clear to those with whom she chooses to speak.
Arthur’s heritage has cost him, and people he loves have suffered and died because of it. He could choose to cast aside Excalibur and run. No one can force him to wield the sword. But, should he opt to abandon the blade, there will be consequences for the world. Devastating consequences. It is not destiny, it is simply what his power-crazed uncle “will do,” because of who he is. Arthur cannot choose his heritage. But he can choose to accept the power that he has, face down evil and work to repair the world.
Arthur, once he stops panicking about being pulled into an endless abyss by a spectral woman who can see what will be, listens. And as he listens, he accepts that if Vortigern is to be stopped, it will fall to him. After denying it for so long, Arthur accepts Excalibur. He draws the holy sword from the mud and roars a lion’s roar as sorrow becomes determination and peace. It’s mythical and strange. It’s the film’s finest moment. And it’s a damn fine piece of filmmaking, one for which I toast Legend of the Sword.