KING Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is not yet released but has already been slammed by many critics, and not only for David Beckham’s cameo.
No wonder director Guy Ritchie is in a pensive mood on the afternoon of the London premiere.
He’s walking slowly around a vast round table, a movie prop that’s been hauled into a hotel for the press day, and opts to stand for the duration of the interview.
He did not, as some people have suggested, set out to mock the genre.
“What I’m interested in is a refreshing take on it,” says Ritchie, 48, arms crossed and rocking from side-to-side in self-soothing fashion.
“Genres need to be respected — and not respected, in the sense that there aren’t hard and fast rules to these expressions.
“People have asked me about being a director and I can’t give any advice, because everyone needs to find their own voice within this world — and I would say the same about genres.”
In this telling, Arthur’s uncle, played by Jude Law in Hamlet mode, seizes the crown after his father, King Uther, is murdered.
Robbed of his birthright, and ignorant of his parentage, a streetwise Arthur is brought up in the city’s back lanes.
Haunted by nightmares he can’t quite decipher, it’s only when he pulls the infamous sword from the stone, that he’s forced to acknowledge his true legacy — whether he likes it or not.
There are epic fight sequences, but for the film-maker, the scenes of rebellion are secondary to exploring what drives Arthur in the first place.
“The manifestation isn’t as interesting as the kernel that drives the manifestation. If Arthur can’t fight his inner demons, he can’t begin to fight his external demons,” explains Ritchie.
“I think any commentary on the internal fight man has with himself is interesting. What’s primary is man’s struggle with himself. I don’t think that’s changed since the beginning of time.”
He admits the tone of the film isn’t as sombre as he’d set out to achieve.
There’s a lot of blokey banter and fast cutting, as you’d expect from the man behind Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch.
“I set out with the principle of keeping a sombre tone but the film dictates its own rhythm,” says Hertfordshire-born Ritchie, who has three children with wife Jacqui, and two, including his adopted son David, from his marriage to Madonna.
“If I’d started out wanting to make a comedy, we probably would have ended up in Monty Python territory, so I had to keep quite a tight rein on it in order to keep the stakes valid.
“But simultaneously, I like the release of levity, so it’s important to me you get the balance right. That’s really the hardest thing to find for a director, to find the expression of rhythm.”
He mentions rhythm a lot, and frequency, likening it to tuning into a radio station.
“If you’re not in sync with that rhythm [of the film], it’s an assault on the senses,” he says.
Ritchie enjoys working with people who “are likely to be working on a similar rhythm to me”, even if they’re not trained actors, like Vinnie Jones in Lock Stock, and Beckham in King Arthur.
“David and I are friends. I think he’s got star quality. Also, he’s genuinely talented and I like using him in stuff,” says the director.
Another person he feels in sync with is his leading man Charlie Hunnam, although Ritchie did have initial concerns over his physicality.
“I was very skinny when I did the audition for this,” explains the 37-year-old actor, who was filming traumatic scenes for the last series of Sons Of Anarchy at the time.
“I showed up and was quite meek, and Guy wanted an Arthur with an imposing physicality,” he recalls.
Worried he was going to lose out on the role, Hunnam came up with a suggestion.
“I said, ‘Listen, if you’re that concerned about it, why don’t we just f**k this auditioning off, and you can bring the rest of those chimpanzees in here, who are auditioning for the role, and we can fight. Whoever walks out of the room gets the role’.”
In Hunnam’s telling, this is the moment he was cast.
“There was a little look in his eye, a glint, and he said, ‘That’s the attitude I’m looking for’,” he says, though Ritchie later jokes this is the actor “fantasising”.
“You have to fight for what you want in this life, and sometimes literally,” adds Hunnam, a Newcastle native who speaks with an American accent after living in the US for years.
Unlike the young Arthur, Hunnam wasn’t scrappy as a kid.
“I was quite shy, quiet and internal, but I did grow up in an area where violence was a real currency.”
After being beaten up by a group of boys, and nearly losing his sight, he got “double busy in learning how to defend myself”.
“I really love a fight in the gym. I train martial arts and I’ll fight two or three times a week. It gives me a certain relationship with my inner barbarian, which feels healthy to do in a controlled environment.”
He was, as he puts it, “cognisant” of the fact Ritchie is drawn to “lively characters” in his movies.
“I knew there was going to be some dudes there that it wasn’t going to be easy to intimidate, but I was more interested in cultivating a sense of being a contender myself, than actually worrying what my body looked like,” says the actor who stepped away from the role of Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades Of Grey films, and eschews the sex symbol tag.
“I don’t feel objectified. I think it’s slightly absurd,” he laughs. “I suppose it’s better than the alternative, of being thought of as an ugly bastard, but I don’t put too much stock in it, no.”
A huge fan of John Boorman’s 1981 movie Excalibur (“I was obsessed and watched it over and over again”), he now feels life has come full circle. “In my own little journey, it’s quite significant to cut to 30 years later and be hired by a director I really loved,” he says, “and to play that character, because I spent a lot of my youth pretending to be him anyway.”
- King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword opens on Friday