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Monday 7 November 2011

Movie costumes I have loved: A Knight's Tale.

After writing about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and (kind of) the new Girl With The Dragon Tattoo adaptation, I'd hate it to seem like I only think "serious" films have costumes worth talking about. Time for something a little more lighthearted!
Paul Bettany as bitchy Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the main reasons you NEED to see this film.
A Knight's Tale has been one of my favourite feel-good movies for years, but only recently did I realise that it's become kind of a cult favourite in the decade since it first came out. In the UK at least, most students and people in their mid-twenties have seen it or own it on DVD, although it's not one of those cult-cult movies like The Room or Mean Girls that people quote incessantly -- it's just straight-up fun. I can't help but love the way A Knight's Tale gleefully embraces its own ridiculousness without a trace of irony. If you haven't seen it, here's a test to see if you'll like it or not: If you get annoyed by the fact that this scene appears in an action-comedy supposedly set in 14th century Europe, then probably don't bother watching any more.
From the first minute, A Knight's Tale is awash with self-aware anachronisms, from the soundtrack (Queen; David Bowie; AC/DC) to the fact that in one overhead shot of "medieval" London they have the freaking London Eye made of wood by the Thames. I don't really understand people who frame that as a criticism, since the film never once claims to be historically accurate the way, say, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood touted its "realism". When was the last time you heard someone complain that Pirates of the Caribbean isn't realistic enough? They're similar films -- action/romance comedies with attractive leads and a supporting cast of excellent comedic actors -- but while Pirates has zombies in it (so historical), A Knight's Tale has people dancing to David Bowie and competing in a completely fictitious set of World Cup-like jousting tournaments. Neither of them are historical dramas, they are fantasy movies.
P.S. The whole "jousting world cup" thing was totally fabricated.

Thinking about the costumes in this film, most of the characters are dressed like cartoon characters. In fact, it works a lot like a Disney cartoon in general -- obvious colour-coding, immediate visual cues to indicate to younger audiences the difference between the good and evil characters, and lots of physical comedy from Heath Ledger's sidekicks. Due to the presence of a fictionalised version of Chaucer (played brilliantly by Paul Bettany) we know it's set some time in the late 14th century, but it may as well be set any time in the amorphous "olden days" of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc because it doesn't matter.
"Oh my goodness! Did you know that nobody actually gives a crap what century we're in?"
In a film that's locked into a specific time period and concerns historical characters the audience might recognise (such as The King's Speech), it's important to make sure the visuals are accurate and create the right background tone for the actors to do their job. In a film like this, a film that's setting out to be cartoonish and funny and emotionally engaging without involving any serious Oscar-bait issues, a high degree of historical accuracy or realism in the set-design and costumes might actually be detrimental to the story.

As the beautiful princess/love-interest character, Shannyn Sossamon's costumes are probably the furthest from anything remotely resembling medieval garb:
Photo from Dianne's Costumes & Research.
Beautiful, timeless, virginal... by way of Chanel coats and those hand-made felt hats your slightly hippie-ish aunt buys at craft fairs. Heath Ledger, on the other hand, looks a bit more like he could actually have been found in Medieval times, aside for the surprising lack of malnutrition, bad teeth or suppurating sores. Most of the peasant characters wear simple tunics or natural-coloured shirts, while it's the richer folk who end up looking like they just fell off a runway circa 2001.
Love it! In the background there's what may or may not be a Roundhead guard and a woman dressed in some approximation of a medieval lady's gown, and at the front we have Shannyn Sossamon looking fabulous in a selection of fabrics that come directly from the machines of the late 20th century. Does this detract from the film? I don't think so. And her outfit is topical because the hat and feminine suit are reminiscent of what ladies wear to the Royal Ascot horse races nowadays, and in this scene she's watching a bunch of other aristocrats play horse-riding sports.
Rufus Sewell (far left) is dressed like a bad guy (black clothes in thick, heavy fabric), and has really negative body-language. The guy in the middle is in a leather jerkin that wouldn't look out of place in a "serious" historical film. Shannyn Sossamon looks delicate, beautiful, and totally anachronistic, and her friend looks kind of medieval but not really. All the extras -- although you can't see them very well here -- provide historical context by looking like they might actually have been at a joust instead of whatever modern-day garden party Shannyn Sossamon just came from.
This head-dress looks almost Tudor-era. I love the way the costume designer managed to take a selection of styles from 14th, 15th, 16th-century Europe and use them to inspire a look that meshes with the more traditional costumes of the rest of the film but still immediately sets the character out as beautiful, fashion-forward, and rich. And they've cleverly sidestepped the problems faced by putting a modern actor in clothes originally intended for the medieval body-shape, and designed clothes that flatter Shannyn Sossamon's super-slim, delicate figure. You get the impression that everyone involved in the making of this film had a really great time working on it -- as evidenced by the fact that it's one of the very few films where the DVD commentary (by Paul Bettany and the director, as I recall) is actually interesting and charming instead of a slew of boring technical details.

The other main female character, Kate the farrier, is dressed relatively sensibly, fitting in with most of the peasants/extras.
 Unlike some people, Kate has an actual job instead of just showing up to jousts and looking pretty. You know what? Shannyn Sossamon's character is kind of a WAG!
Aside from Shannyn Sossamon's wildly anachronistic gowns, my other main love of the costumes in A Knight's Tale stems from the way they're used consciously within the story to illustrate Heath Ledger's journey from serf to knight. Aside from an upgrade in armour when he wins a couple of tournaments, Heath's own costumes don't change much throughout the film. Aside from the scene in the video above, for which he gets his man-servant to sew him a party outfit out of curtain material (!), he mainly wears simple linen shirts and trousers. His sidekicks, on the other hand, totally get a makeover. At the beginning the three of them look like this:
Screencaps from
But by the end they look like this:
I particularly enjoy the way Alan Tudyk's outfits have this almost sports team logo-esque motif going on throughout.
Wat and Roland (Alan Tudyk and Mark Addy, in two of of the most entertaining comedy-sidekick performances I can think of) now wear matching green livery and Paul Bettany has not only acquired clothes but got hold of an awesome leather coat. If you watch out for it, you'll notice that coat get gradually more and more souped-up every time Heath's team wins more money in the tournaments. A mid-level moment in Paul Bettany's progression from nudity to to pimped-out fur/leather coat looks like this:
While Heath Ledger's costumes are very simple (presumably so as not to distract from his luminous good looks), Rufus Sewell, thanks to both design and genetics, looks about as dastardly as you can get. He barely even needs dialogue -- he could just glower a lot while wearing a ton of black armour, and the audience would be able to work it out.
I wonder if there's a stable in Hollywood that caters exclusively to evil-looking horses, to play Nazgul steeds in Lord of the Rings and stuff like that? Either way, the costume people in A Knight's Tale went out of their way to make Rufus Sewell's armour look as forbidding as possible, with lots of expensive-looking black gloss to contrast with Heath's honest-looking second-hand armour at the beginning of the movie.
Plus many high collars and tight fastenings to show how closed-off he is compared to sweet, beautful Heath Ledger. I TOLD YOU THIS MOVIE HAD THE SUBTLETY OF A DISNEY CARTOON.
OMG he's so dreamy!!
As with every aspect of this movie, the costumes don't take themselves too seriously. The female lead looks stand-out beautiful, the bad guy is so evil-looking a three-year-old could probably pick him out at a glance, and the supporting cast have costumes that fit with their characters without distracting from the main guys. Compare a warm, humour-filled film like this with the visuals of Robin Hood (which supposedly takes place in the same time period, and even has a similar rags-to-riches storyline), and I know which one I prefer.
Try to get a little more brown in there next time, OK? WE WANT IT TO LOOK REALLY GRITTY.


  1. You've made me want to rewatch this film because I don't think I've given it a fair shake in the past. I've never really considered Jocelyn's costumes because I've always been so annoyed by her - I much preferred Kate because she a) had a job, and b) that job was making awesome armour. In fact I enjoyed all of the secondary characters much more than the two mains and I think I resented the film for not being about the sidekicks or the Black Prince.

    But, yeah, Jocelyn's costumes are great and now I totally see what they were doing. But I wish such thought had been paid to all of the characters and that we'd gotten less lazy contrasts been Will and Rufus Sewell.

    Off topic: what do you think about Rufus Sewell for Crowley in "Good Omens"? He doesn't get much chance to play not evil, but he did Machiavellian mischief really well in "Much Ado About Nothing" which is how I think of Crowley.

  2. I'm super glad to have changed your mind about this film if you didn't like it before! To be honest I'd never thought about the costumes in any particular detail until I made this post -- I loved it for other reasons -- but I think the cheesy/anachronistic outfits fit perfectly with the rest of the movie, on the whole. Shannyn Sossamon isn't the best actor ever or anything, but this is her FIRST EVER film role, and also I don't seem to dislike her as much as many seem to. (I'm not sure why. I mean, maybe I'm biased because I love this film so much. But also... she named her child AUDIO SCIENCE. How amazing is that? That's some wonderful Hollywood weirdness right there. Audio Science.)

    I think Rufus Sewell might even be too menacing for that?? I've seen him in a couple of non-villain roles (an Italian crime drama he did for the BBC last year, and that Inception-precursor, Dark City -- which, BTW, makes for some interesting viewing) but he's so intense, plus the matter of his facial features, that it's difficult to see him in a jokier role. I see Crowley as a lazier character, a sort of late-90s yuppie with occasional moments of genuine threateningness, but otherwise mostly just a bit of a smooth-talker. i wouldn't say no, though. UGH, I WANT A GOOD OMENS MOVIE. :((((

  3. Have you seen him in Cold Comfort Farm? Because he can totally do comedy.

  4. I ran across this article (and the blog in general) and really enjoyed both! I had to comment on this one because I feel like this style of costuming for historical dramas is a really British-TV thing (shows like Merlin, historical episodes on Doctor Who, the BBC Casanova miniseries - forgive me, my TV-watching habits are obviously quite geeky) that I wish Hollywood would do more of. I suspect British TV does it precisely BECAUSE they don't have the budget for the painfully-authentic LOTR style of costuming/prop-making, but although it may start out as a way to work with a constraint, it often seems to end up freeing them to do things that are visually fun and still get the point across. It strikes me as similar to the mind-set British TV (or at least the geeky stuff I watch) also seems to take on things like casting actors of color willy-nilly in period pieces where they're technically anachronistic - sort of a "screw the details, does this actor/costume/etc. communicate the atmosphere we want?" attitude that I enjoy and that you just don't see in American media.

  5. "I wonder if there's a stable in Hollywood that caters exclusively to evil-looking horses, to play Nazgul steeds in Lord of the Rings and stuff like that?"

    The Nazgul horses, and a lot of black horses in medieval-set movies, are Friesans. They're strong, smart, photogenic, and properly medieval-looking.

  6. where can i the outfits with the phoenix on them custom made or pre-made?

  7. Leather is always in fashion specially in winters. Coz we have to wear stylish stuff so we can go with stylish leather jackets.Amazing design and stylish stuff i liked it alot. i have known some of these kinda website in this valentine i gifted my boyfriend Movie jackets and he loved it.

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