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Brit or Amazon? Knightley in King Arthur.

Damaged and Murky
By Laura Leon

The Clearing
Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge

When I was about 10, and making a truly lousy attempt at skiing, I ran right smack into Robert Redford, who was basking in the bleak Berkshire sunlight with his family. As I remember, he was quite cordial about the whole thing, flashing his megawatt smile at the tongue-tied, apparently brain-damaged girl who was blathering out an incoherent apology mixed with professions of undying love. His eyes were bluer than anything I had ever imagined.

Redford’s eyes are still dazzlingly blue, but the rest of him, I’m afraid, has frozen into some wretched, horrifying warning against sun exposure. What, possibly, does this have to do with his performance in The Clearing, a tepid thriller from director Pieter Jan Brugge, and why on earth am I prattling on about his physical appearance, rather than reserving my space to examine his acting? To be perfectly blunt, seeing this once-beautiful man on screen, whose traces of facial resurfacing barely register above the prunishly puckered lips, the overall roughness (the effect of a man terribly burned), is disconcerting to the point of distraction. Redford plays Wayne Hayes, a self-made man whose successful rent-a-car empire has allowed him and wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) the privileges of a stately, secluded manor, luxury vehicles and the sense of unscheduled freedom with which to pass time. Granted, Wayne continues to work as a consultant, but his leisurely mornings, eating poolside, while Eileen outlines the social agenda of the evening, bear none of the burdens of say, having to be at the office by 10.

This easy pace is jarringly cut short, quite early in the film, when Wayne is taken prisoner by disgruntled, out-of-work Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), who proceeds to lead him, by foot, through the mountains en route to a cabin where “the others” will take over. The movie bounces back and forth between Wayne’s and Arnold’s lengthy conversations and scenes in which Eileen and grown children struggle to cope with a father’s abrupt disappearance. The former scenes are seemingly meant to portray the ways in which kidnapper and hostage, poor schmuck and rich guy, are similar, e.g., they both had tough childhoods, both have loving and loyal wives, etc. The good news is that Wayne shows flickers of real guts and righteous indignation, that he should be somehow penalized for success that resulted from his own struggling and initiative. Redford is still a completely natural actor, much like Spencer Tracy, in that he doesn’t make you see the “performance” as much as understand the character. The bad news, aside from the fact that Redford’s craggy countenance consistently unnerves, is that nothing really much comes from these encounters. No matter what face Arnold puts on his misery, we still like Wayne a whole lot better, and can’t feel that he’s responsible for Arnold’s woes.

The Clearing works much better in scenes in which Eileen struggles to maintain some semblance of dignity and control, even after FBI agents inform her that, contrary to her belief, Wayne had continued to see an old mistress. Despite some hokey flashbacks, meant to depict just how very happy this family was, there is some tight writing and a deft evocation of the fleeting memories and time-filtered flashbacks that survivors are left with, and the subtle acknowledgement that humans needs to place some sort of order on those memories, especially in such excruciatingly difficult times. This is really Mirren’s film, as she alone seems willing to play the delicate nuances that fuel her character’s lifestyle; and she doesn’t back away from moments in which Eileen comes across as icy, imperious and fiercely protective of her choices. In the end, there’s a saccharine moment that would be perfect for one of those DeBeers commercials, extolling the importance of showing the little woman how much she’s meant to you by offering her a diamond as big as the Ritz, which nearly sinks the good thing that Mirren has made of half the movie. Ultimately, it’s an OK movie marred by too much caution and not enough tension.

Dismal and Dirty

King Arthur
Directed by Antoine Fuqua

King Arthur, the new action spectacular, er, heroic epic from Jerry Bruckheimer, purports to be the true story of the legendary leader, and as such recasts the star of many a lyric epic from the Middle Ages to the sixth century. Apparently basing the character on one Ambrosius, a Romano-British general who gave the invading Saxons such a whupping that they steered clear of Britannia for the next half-century, the script by David Franzoni (Gladiator) makes Arthur (Clive Owen) a Roman soldier and calls him Artorius. As a way of including fragmentary evidence indicating that he may have hailed from Samartia, Arthur’s knights of the round table consist of bawdy, brawny conscripts from the Russian steppes. When the film opens, the magnificently unshaven seven—grim men already famed for their grim deeds—have just finished their 15 years of combat duty. They start out weary and become wearier still, especially Arthur, who is disillusioned by the Roman retreat from Britain.

Scrupulously avoiding almost everything associated with Arthurian legend (Excalibur is mentioned only once), the film replaces mythos with the usual Kurosawa-inspired battle sequences and silly pop sensibilities (“Is that your happy face?” asks one braggartly knight of his dejected comrade.) Cliché-ridden pronouncements on faith (the knights are pagans), equality, and freedom (many of them recycled from Gladiator) slow the furious pace to a standstill. Instead of freedom, the men are given one last—and probably fatal—mission: to rescue an important Roman family in the path of Saxon marauders. Ever the stoic, Arthur rallies the knights from their revelry, and delayed only by a scolding from Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), they ride off to their destiny.

First, they must survive a forest ambush by the Woads (Celts? Picts? Britons? Your guess is as good as the filmmakers’), during which Merlin (Stephen Dillane) inexplicably spares their lives. And that’s about all he does. Merlin is given disappointingly scant screen time, and for a Druid priest, he’s strangely devoid of mysticism. In place of culture and ritual, the natives are distinguished by blue face paint (or in Merlin’s case, Manic Panic blue lipstick). Stripped of Christian allegory and chivalric romance, King Arthur desperately needs some exaltation, or at least a heroic trajectory of some sort. But the plot is just a device to lumber from one battle to the next. Guinevere (Keira Knightley), a fearsome Woad, is sprung from the villa’s dungeon, but no sooner do she and Arthur disappear into the woods for a tryst than it’s time to flee the Saxons. Poor Lancelot can only cast longing (or more often, voyeuristic) glances—no cuckolding allowed in Bruckheimer’s Brawn Age. And no enchanted forests or heather-covered meadows, either. In this Britain, usually referred to as “this wretched island,” it’s always raining, or snowing, or fogged over. Kind of makes you wonder why anyone would want to conquer it.

Apparently, the Saxon warlord Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard) is ravaging the countryside in search of a worthy opponent, and he finds it in Owen’s Arthur. “Artorius” is about as authentic as Robert Goulet, yet Owen imbues him with convincing strength and stature. And Skarsgard’s growling warlord is the most entertaining thing in the movie. When he orders his troops to “kill every man, woman and child who can hold a sword,” you get a pretty good idea of why everyone wants to get out his way—fast. Cedric’s power struggle with his itching-to-command son (Til Schweiger) is more understandable than any of the relationships between the knights, who give way too often to their boorish comic relief, Bors (Ray Winstone). In fact, the knights are so covered in tangles of hair (apparently, they all go to Aragorn’s barber), that it’s hard to tell them apart.

It’s easy to distinguish Guinevere, however. She’s the one strapped into a breast thong. Seemingly an Olympic archer, she cuts a swath through the Saxons with greater brute strength than an Amazon. Her ridiculous feats almost undo the lyrical cinematography of Slawomir Idziak, who occasionally supplies an image worthy of Sir Mallory. And this is not so much the stirring long view of Arthur as a solitary centurion upon a hilltop—although Owen could do for helmets what Russell Crowe did for sandals—as a few moments later, when the camera moves in close to catch something wildly melancholic in his eyes.

Idziak is also responsible for a terrific set piece set on a frozen river that cracks under the combatants, during which the Saxons’ armor-piercing crossbow is up against the Britons’ longbow (never mind that neither weapon had been invented yet). Even so, this is a tediously angst- ridden revision. At every throw of the lance, there are regrets and lamentations. After a hard-won victory, Arthur wails to his knights, “I have failed you.” He might as well be speaking to the audience.

—Ann Morrow

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