The Daily Stream: A Knight's Tale Is A Delightfully Anachronistic Comedy With A Great Message

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "A Knight's Tale"

Where You Can Stream It: Starz

The Pitch: Can we change our stars? Can we choose something different than what life has offered us? That's the question "A Knight's Tale" asks. It's the story of a 14th century impoverished squire named William (Heath Ledger), whose father sent him off to work with a knight who passes away while resting from a tournament. William has grown up watching this knight and learning to joust. Though he's not noble, he dons the knight's armor and wins the tournament, to the delight of fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk). 

Of course, to be a real knight, one must be a noble, and after running into Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), William finds a solution for that little issue. Chaucer forges the documents that William needs to be considered a knight, and off he goes to win glory and fame — but not in his own name. He goes by Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein from Gelderland. A secret can't be kept forever though — can William change his stars, and become a knight in name as well as in his heart?

It sounds like a fanciful story, but director Brian Helgeland has said in a video interview with Reel 6 that "A Knight's Tale" is set in the real-life six months when Chaucer (who wrote "The Canterbury Tales," including "The Knight's Tale) was "missing" from history.

Why it's essential viewing

It may sound like a straightforward sort of fantasy tale of knights and ladies, battle and glory, but it's not. All of that is in there, but it's liberally sprinkled with modern music, vernacular, and sensibilities. I know anachronisms can rub people the wrong way in films, but this isn't a Starbucks cup in a scene from "Game of Thrones." No one is trying to pretend that this is historically accurate at all, despite real-life people like The Black Prince (James Purefoy) as characters. 

The woman William falls in love with — Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) — sports face paint, crazy hairstyles, and gowns that would have shocked the people of the 14th century. We have a female blacksmith named Kate (Lauren Fraser) who isn't there as a love interest, but as a friend and colleague. (Many women took over jobs after their male relatives died, but having a profession like this one was very uncommon.) They dance to "Golden Years" by David Bowie at a ball. In fact, the soundtrack for the film includes songs like "We Will Rock You" from Queen, "The Boys are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy, and "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC. 

We have all the trappings of a fairytale, with a noble peasant who becomes a knight, a bard, battles, love, and great speeches, but what we also have are characters that would never have made it into a story like this if it was accurate to the times. Jocelyn has no qualms about sleeping with William. The gang takes Kate on after just a tiny bit of resistance. A prince is impressed by a peasant and actually does something about that. 

A modern message wrapped in medieval costumes

The message of the film — being able to change your stars and be more than people expect or want you to be — isn't something that really would have fit into the time period to begin with. Folk tales of the age may have been rife with peasants becoming princes, but it wasn't something you could really do. Class structures were so strict that there was no way to move up, though to be fair, this was shortly after an outbreak of the Black Death, which was one of the few times that people had more social class movement in Europe. There just weren't enough people to work after so many deaths. Land was left fallow, and there was a little jockeying for position. 

That particular exception aside, moving up in the world wasn't common. I think one of the reasons this film appeals to me so much is that very fact. Maybe you, like me, have wondered what sort of person you'd be in an earlier age. Of course, we all have the bias of our times, and when I say something like, "I would have been a female blacksmith, and I'd fight anyone who said I couldn't," I know that it wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in hell of happening. I'm bringing my modern sensibilities to a fantasy. No, likely I would have been killed on the spot for trying, accused of being a witch, or something like that. So for me, watching a film that allows me to live that fantasy that could never happen is like a dessert for the soul. 

Chaucer is the best hype man

Look, this isn't a complex story, full of twists and turns. It's pretty simple. Poor guy with a heart of gold defies the conventions of the time. His friends with odd jobs support him. He meets a bad guy (Rufus Sewell as Count Adhemar) who doesn't have a single good quality. He impresses someone noble, falls in love, and wins the day. (I really don't think that's a spoiler, because what — did you think they were going to let him fail?) 

It doesn't have historical accuracy, but what it does have is buckets of heart and a fantastic cast including Heath Ledger, Alan Tudyk, Paul Bettany, Mark Addy, Shannyn Sossamon, and even Bérénice Bejo, who went on to star in the Academy Award-winning film "The Artist." It has good guys to root for, bad guys to boo at, daring bravery, goofy monologues, no prudery, Alan Tudyk mugging (my very favorite), and the best damn hype speech in film history done by Paul Bettany. 

"A Knight's Tale" is like a warm bowl of soup, or a slice of chocolate cake in the middle of the night. It's comfort food. It's funny as hell, empowering, and reminds us that we don't really live in the 14th century. We can fight for the things we believe in. That's a pretty good message for the world right now.