A modern take on the King Arthur story delivers lively results in Joe Cornish’s long anticipated follow up to the brilliant Attack The Block. Aimed mostly at a slightly younger audience it nonetheless contains enough of interest for all ages harking back to simpler times when pure adventure was about heroic deeds, inspiring words plus an essential sprinkling of magic. These days it seems like a preferable option.
Spoilers past this point…
12 year old Alex’s latest rescuing of best mate Bedders from bullies Lance and Kaye leads to him to a building site where he draws what turns out to be mythical sword Excalibur from a stone thus re-awakening sorceress Morgana, bound underground by roots centuries ago. It also brings back wizard Merlin now mostly in the guise of a somewhat eccentric teenager. The kids soon find themselves on a quest to find a way into the underworld which could be linked to Alex’s father before Morgana’s army of demons overrun the world in four day’s time during a solar eclipse.
Joe Cornish’s rigorous script manages to effectively draw together the old and the new. He introduces a strand suggesting Alex’s unseen father was similarly involved in magical matters which reaches an unexpected conclusion. He also places an emphasis on the Arthurian idea of bringing together enemies as friends, as both Lance and Kaye end up on the quest even if initially it is for their own ends. Cornish also cleverly decides that Merlin can only appear during daylight leaving the kids at serious jeopardy once it goes dark which leads to several impressive sequences. So while Merlin is there to advise and help train- particularly during a well- staged battle with animated trees- it is Alex and his friends who make the crucial decisions. The film even cheekily gets round the question of onlookers by having everyone who hasn't been knighted by Excalibur simply vanish when the warriors appear!
Visually the movie again shows how Cornish as a director is able to lead us fluidly through a story punctuated by thrilling action sequences this time variously involving cars, a bog and dark woods. The attacks by long dead warrriors made of bone and wielding fire are well deployed, with more of them each time incrementally increasing the danger and giving the film a momentum to stop it becoming repetitive. This pays off in a final battle in and around the school which is packed with inventive defence ideas that you can believe kids really would think of.
It is to the movie’s credit that Alex never disappears under the welter of events as such characters often do and his actions remain vital to driving the narrative right to the finale. In this main role Louis Ashbourne Serkis impresses with his composure and range, helped by a script that makes Alex a reluctant though practical hero. Dean Chaumoo’s Bedders scores too in a traditional best friend role who is given some interesting twists. I do feel that both Lance and Kaye are slightly underserved but their plotline brings out the best from Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris.
Young and old alike will surely enjoy Angus Imrie’s scene stealing turn as young Merlin, all urgent tics, ill -fitting clothing, slightly olde worlde speech and a hand movement thing for spells that kids will want to impersonate. From his appearance as “a perfectly normal English schoolboy” called `Mertin` to his confrontation at the climax, it’s surely a career changing performance that is utilised especially well. Patrick Stewart plays old Merlin to give the more serious bits classical heft- the actor himself has drawn comparisons with Prospero. Rebecca Ferguson doesn’t have a lot to do as it takes a while to untangle herself and Morgana has to remain underground for most of the duration but when called upon to show just how strong her ambition is makes an impact.
One of the refreshing aspects of Attack The Block was the streetwise background and vernacular of the main protagonists which enabled sharp dialogue and knowing references. There’s less of that here though it’s worth remembering this principal duo are younger however there are incidences when you feel the exchanges could be pushed a little further which would also have made Merlin seem even more of a fish out of water.
Nonetheless the overall tone of the film does seem to be titling towards contemporary concerns. It’s not the Brexit baiting scenario some reviewers have suggested though there is a pointed scene when the camera lingers on newspaper headlines, speeches about poor leadership and talk of the country in chaos but it certainly sits well in the current climate. Its message of bringing opposing sides to some sort of way forward is definitely one worth presenting any time.
The Kid Who Would Be King confirms Joe Cornish as a writer and director of distinction who brings a freshness and momentum to his films and I’m hoping it isn’t eight years till he makes another one!