'Arthur's' Guinevere Slays Hearts

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"King Arthur" requires a generous assessment to qualify as a hit-and-miss entertainment, but it aspires to be stirring and distinctive in ways that may justify some lasting fondness. For example, I expect to be permanently fond of the battlefield apparel worn by Keira Knightley as a boldly revisionist Guinevere.

The future queen is now identified as the warrior-princess daughter of Merlin (Stephen Dillane, probably unrecognizable as the same actor who played Leonard Woolf in "The Hours"), wily chieftain of the forest-dwelling Woads. Guinevere charges the ranks of invading Saxons armed with sword, bow and the cutest battle halter ever sewn. My felicitations to costume designer Penny Rose, who may have pioneered a delightfully minimal new fashion in antique breastplates.

Presumably, this costume clouds the minds of sex-starved Saxons before they can get a firm grip on their blades and axes. To complete the ensemble, Miss Knightley assumes a warlike snarl that could be translated from fifth-century body language as, "We're fierce, we're feminine, and we're in your face."

The time frame is essential to the movie's novelty aspirations as a romantic and historical spectacle. Instead of harking back to the familiarly medieval Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin and Co., screenwriter David Franzoni and director Antoine Fuqua backdate the characters several centuries, to the end of the Roman Empire's control of Britain.

Mr. Franzoni believes he has located a prototype for the legendary Arthur of 12th-century romances in a noble legionnaire named Lucius Artorius Castus of the late second century. His homeland may have been Sarmatia, a conquered Russian steppe noted for its horsemen.

The movie seems to be celebrating a namesake Artorius, portrayed by Clive Owen, blessedly more animated than he was last week in the godforsaken thriller "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." Half-Roman, half-Briton, he's the painfully conscientious commander of a troubleshooting group of outriders who patrol the border regions along Hadrian's Wall, circa 475.

They make up a would-be Magnificent Seven, curiously enough. As a sword-wielding Lancelot, Ioan Gruffudd of the "Horatio Hornblower" miniseries is a handsomely smoldering second in command. The sidekicks include a Galahad (Hugh Dancy), a Gawain (Joel Edgerton) and a Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), but the standouts obviously are Ray Winstone as gruffly comic Bors and Ray Stevenson as the towering and awesomely strong Dagonet. …