Sunday, April 13, 2014

Is Guy Ritchie the right director for the King Arthur epic?

Ritchie may be set to direct Warner Bros's six-film King Arthur saga, but could Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro or Kenneth Branagh bring something better to the table?

'African Cats' film premiere, London, Britain - 25 Apr 2012
New adventure … Guy Ritchie has become a technically adept director-for-hire on Hollywood’s current action-orientated take on Sherlock Holmes. Photograph: Rex
There are very few classic swords and sorcery properties that seem ripe for revival on the big screen: Peter Jackson's splendid Lord of the Rings trilogy finally wiped out memories of Ralph Bakshi's brave but half-finished 1978 effort. There will never be a Conan movie as fabulous as John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, from 1982, and it ought to be a good 20 years before we have to see another Harry Potter movie. But it's easy to argue that there has never been a definitive movie about King Arthur, so the news this week that we're about to get a six-film Arthurian saga from Warner Bros really ought to be cause for celebration.
The question, however, is whether Guy Ritchie is the right man to bring the story of the once and future king to the big screen. While the British director has expanded his remit dramatically since the era of brutal 1990s east Larndarn gangster flicks Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, he has done so by becoming a technically adept director-for-hire on Hollywood's current action-orientated take on Sherlock Holmes. The second film in that series, 2011's Game of Shadows, was a surprisingly deft and spiky adventure movie, but the saga as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. Overly reliant on CGI backdrops and Ritchie's penchant for slow-mo/fast-mo fight sequences, it is as if the long-dead corpse of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great sleuth has been reanimated using the life-force of a 19-year-old American college fratboy with an addiction to Xbox 360. The fear is that his new project might go the same way, and frankly, nobody wants to see King Arthur and Lancelot battling it out in the melee using techniques borrowed from Krav Maga and UFC.
It should also be mentioned that the script for Warner's latest take on King Arthur is written by one Joby Harold, a screenwriter whose only released big-screen effort is the critically derided 2007 medical thriller Awake. The epic story of Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere, Gawain and the round table surely needs a more delicate sensibility if the film series is to be a success. Here are three film-makers who might make a difference.

Peter Jackson

With Jackson's movies based on the work of JRR Tolkien having now taken almost $5bn at the global box office, you might think Hollywood would turn to similarly minded film-makers for England's other great fantasy myth. Jackson's writing team – himself, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens – carefully deconstructed The Lord of the Rings and brilliantly repositioned it for the big screen, in the process adding vital humanity and a sense of light amid the darkness often lacking in the rather more doom-laden literary source. That ability to deliver warmth and a sense of joy is absolutely essential for King Arthur, a story of heroism and glory which nevertheless ends on a bum note. John Boorman's Excalibur, from 1982, shows the risks of going too far in the other direction: it's a deliciously sour confection which conjures up an inspired vision of otherworldly dark ages violence. But it's also rather like staring into a pool of dead things for two hours.

Kenneth Branagh

A few years back our Ken might have been the ideal candidate to play young Arthur himself: these days he would be better placed behind the camera, or as a weary older take on the character. Branagh has those wonderful scenes of mud-faced jingoistic patriotism from Henry V to inspire him for the king's battles against the Anglo-Saxons, and his recent stint in charge of superhero flick Thor proved he can imbue even the lightest of material with a dash of Shakespearean colour. And surely the challenge of developing one of England's greatest myths is fitting for an artist whose early career was spent bringing the Bard to the big screen – at the very least it's got to be more fun than directing Cinderella.

Guillermo del Toro

We never got to see Del Toro's take on The Hobbit, though his work on the screenplays for Jackson's films lives on. What if the Mexican film-maker could make good by delivering another fiercely English tale that's just as magical and in many ways far more exotic? The darker edges of the King Arthur mythos should blend perfectly with Del Toro's penchant for twisted supernatural themes, and his love of animatronics would be perfect for monsters like the Questing Beast. Like Jackson, the Pan's Labyrinth film-maker has the ability to cover frightening material without descending into a slough of despond. His version of the Arthur story might be a colourful, heartfelt take on the heroic fantasy epic.

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