I’ve not read the Jan Guillou trilogy on which Arn: The Knight Templar is based. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s a young-adult historical fantasy. I’ve not seen anything like the film adaptation, which mixes the epic scale of Braveheart with the corny lessons about friendship, faith and romance that one might expect from the first movie they ever watched. That sounds like a slam, but the truth is that I love Arn for its alternating excitement and silliness. I also love that it was able to boil several books down to their most entertaining, film-worthy parts—unlike another series about a boy’s lifelong quest to vanquish evil that I could mention.
The movie begins with Arn (Joaquim Natterqvist) and a small contingent of Crusaders preventing a robbery in the desert. Among the men they rescue is the Muslim leader Saladin (Milind Soman), who begrudgingly pledges gratitude to Arn. Over a campfire, Arn tells Saladin the story of how he came to be in the desert and speak the native tongue.
We flash back twenty years to Arn’s apprenticeship in the monastery where he was raised. Under the guidance of Brother Guilbert (Vincent Perez), he learns archery, swordsmanship, and spirituality. When he reaches adulthood, he’s ordered to return home to reconnect with his family, who are embroiled in a bitter rivalry with the Sverkersson clan. Arn also becomes infatuated with a girl named Cecilia (Sofia Helin), who lives in a neighboring convent. The two fall in love, and when Cecilia tells her sister Katarina (Lina Englund) that they plan to elope, Katarina falsely accuses Arn of bedding both she and Cecilia—a big no-no in a devout society. Arn is banished from his homeland and conscripted to join the Crusades as a Knight Templar. Cecilia is sent to an ultra-strict convent, where she must adhere to a vow of silence. She also has to give up the baby that she and Arn conceived in the woods following their first kiss.
If you’re having flashbacks to Atonement, you’re not alone. Much of Arn is a period romance about lies tearing true love apart, and the lengths that soul mates will go to to find each other again. The key difference is that there’s more bloodshed and treachery here, with several sub-plots involving the warring families, warring nuns, warring holy warriors, and warring religious ideologies. It’s a testament to Hans Gunnarsson’s light touch as a screenwriter that Arn doesn’t get bogged down in either too much romance or too much politics.
The story is broken into chapters that sometimes overlap, sometimes wrap around, and sometimes play straight on through. At the center is Natterqvist, whose Arn has the sullen pretty-boy face of Neil Patrick Harris and Shawn Ashmore’s love-child and the sincere, world-weary demeanor that people mistakenly ascribed to Russell Crowe’s Oscar-winning Gladiator performance. Though his mind is focused on defeating the Lord’s enemies and half of his heart belongs to Jesus, Arn wears the constant thousand-yard stare of someone who just wants to make sweet, sweet love in the nearest orchard. So even when he’s chopping off hands or bickering with his crazy superiors who believe the knights’ golden True Cross can protect them on a three-day trek through the hottest part of the desert without water, you can tell by Natterqvist’s wonderfully half-engaged face that his brain is writing bad poetry to his beloved.
Speaking of poetry, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better looking modern epic than Arn. Director Peter Flinth and cinematographer Erik Kress do some amazing things making dreary skies, woods, and stone look more full of life than waning legend Ridley Scott did in last year’s ill-conceived Robin Hood update. Flinth and Kress never fail to evoke their ever-changing tones, switching up tender romance to the quiet menace of jealousy and betrayal to the dread of citizen soldiers squaring off against a seasoned army for the first (and last) time. They even do something here that I thought was impossible: they caught me by surprise with the low-hanging-branch-knocking-a-guy-off-his-horse bit. I re-watched the few seconds leading up to the moment of impact and marveled at the subtlety and misdirection of the moment. Best yet, the accident is followed by humor and then tenderness that didn’t seem at all forced.
There’s also some fantastic dialogue here, and I can’t be sure if it’s a translation issue, or if Gunnarsson is just a comedic savant. In an early scene, one of the Sverkerssons challenges Arn’s father (Michael Nyqvist) to a sword fight and mocks his low-class family (all men, by the way) as being “nothing but puny girls, a nun, and a beer keg.” I nearly spit coffee all over my monitor when I heard that.
I don’t mean to sell Arn as a masterpiece. It’s pretty damned good, but there are goofy little moments that keep it out of the “classic” category. First, we have the Jaws: The Revenge moment, where a bunch of characters have a collective flashback to a scene none of them were present to witness. When Cecilia is brought before the church on charges of fornication, the congregation somehow flashes on her and Arn getting down in the woods. Next, we have the introduction of Magnus, Arn and Cecilia’s grown-up son, whose Big Reveal is completely undone by the fact that he looks like Kristen Wiig with a Prince Valiant hairdo.
Another slight hitch in my enjoyment of Arn is the filmmakers’ decision to use multiple languages to tell their story. Now, I’m a big fan of subtitled films, but I’m also a big fan of consistency. It’s cute that Flinth and company wanted to showcase Arn’s international adventures by switching up English, Swedish, Arabic and others, but after awhile the appearance and disappearance of subtitles just becomes confusing. It was unclear who could speak what to whom, and I just wished they would’ve either gone fully subtitled or fully English with different accents. Sure, it’s a nitpick. What of it?
None of these minor issues detract from Arn being a surprisingly great little movie. I think its lack of flashiness and gratuitous violence make it a solid action-epic primer for older kids. As I mentioned before, there are plenty of One to Grow On lessons as well, and even if you’ve learned (or ignored) all of them, sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of things like honor, the value of friends and family, and the commitment to an idea greater than oneself (hey, one man’s simplicity is another’s profundity). I was moved by Arn in ways I didn’t expect to be, and have found a new standard by which to judge epic adventure movies.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 04/11/11.]