King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Show Hide image

In a crowded field, David Beckham's cameo is the worst thing about King Arthur: Legends of the Sword

A better name for this geezerish fiasco might have been Excalibants.

There are many terrible things about King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie’s take on Arthurian myth, so many in fact that while watching it I rather gave up counting them and amused myself instead by coming up with alternative titles that might better reflect the film’s geezerish, bombastic and uniquely unsubtle nature. Lancelot Du Lad, say. Excalibants. Famalot.

The unvaryingly shouty performances are hard to tolerate, as are the mannered, breakneck montages in which one laddish character or another gives a précis of a particular tale or anticipates the manner in which they see a situation panning out (a stylistic digression familiar from Ritchie’s other work) in the fashion of a shaggy-dog story recounted from a bar-stool. There is only one thing in the picture that really stands out to me as original or interesting: as Arthur, Charlie Hunnam has one splendid moment, no more than a few seconds long, in which he pants openly in the moments following a fight. No dialogue — just panting, while he catches his breath again. There’s something you don’t see very often. No one involved in fisticuffs in the movies ever looks remotely winded, at least not if they’re the victor. So hats off to Ritchie for that, and that alone.

In a poor film, the use of David Beckham in a minor but significant role stands out as an own goal. It's a towering misjudgement and a good example of the way filmmaking for Ritchie is really just an extension of socialising. You get your mates around you, have a few drinks and a few larks and Bob’s your uncle. Or Becks, in this case.

No director who truly had his eye on the ball, and was considering the good of the film, would ever have countenanced the casting of Beckham in what is the key scene in the movie: Arthur’s retrieval of the sword Excalibur from the stone in which it is encased. This is the point in the story at which Arthur’s destiny is made manifest. His act singles him out as unique and changes the course of his life. So what is Ritchie’s response to dramatising this pivotal moment? Stick Becks in there to distract the audience’s attention away from this transformative point in the hero’s story. This on its own would be proof enough that Ritchie is not any kind of film director, even if there were not already 20 years’ worth of other movies to be taken into account.

I know Beckham and Ritchie are buddies. I get it. I got it before he gave him a walk-on in his last film, The Man from UNCLE. But I don’t go to the cinema to watch other people’s home movies. It might be considered a nice touch that Ritchie partially disfigures his friend’s beautiful face with an unsightly and angry-looking scar. But that only serves as an extra distraction within the larger one of having Beckham in the picture at all. Now the viewer thinks: Is that David Beckham? It is David Beckham! Wow. How funny. And they’ve put a horrible scar over his face. Oh, that’s good. He’s usually so pretty and here he is looking slightly less so. Very droll.

Meanwhile, to the right of the frame, Arthur has just pulled the sword from the stone while the viewer is getting over this celebrity cameo. It’s only Excalibur, though. No biggie.

‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ opens on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496