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Animation that sees Chaucer as an early post-modernist.
Nearly two years after the initial episodes were broadcast, BBC2 finally got round to showing the concluding part of its trilogy of 'Canterbury Tales' in this, the 600th anniversary of Chaucers' death. The format is the same - three tales are framed by the journey of a ragbag group of pilgrims, this time on their way back from Canterbury, where they prayed at the shrine of the martyr Thomas a Becket.
This episode is the least satisfactory - the last two tales somewhat deficient in narrative or visual imagination. The first tale, though, the Squire's, is arguably the most beautiful of the whole series, telling of an Eastern kingdom, visited by a mysterious Red knight bearing magical gifts. His good intentions seem to go awry, as his magic leads to both the king's sons and generals vanishing, leaving the kingdom open to enemy invasion. The Red Knight promises to save the kingdom if he is crowned monarch, and his true intentions seem apparent; so thinks the princess he loves at any rate, as she refuses to marry him.
The animation of this tale is truly sublime, otherworldly, evincing a genuine magic, the bright, bleached primary colours creating a cool, Oriental atmosphere combining the magical and expressive, the watercolour texture achieving an emotional limpidity. This style allows for great freedom, especially when compared to the clumping puppetry of the succeeding tales - in one brief sequence the Red Knight talks about the power of his bird-shaped ring - the ring becomes a flock of birds, which in turn becomes the armour of the Knight, setting off a series of connections and meanings that run through the animation, and appropriately mimic the narrative and figurative complexity of Chaucer's poem.
If the other tales disappoint, the framing story delights, once again achieving a portrait of vibrant, bustling medievalism usually unavailable to live-action films. The sacred purpose of the Tales is quickly jettisoned for earthier pleasures - food, drink, gambling, sex etc. The cockfighting and pig-gutting give rather too vivid a picture of the time, as does the exposure of aristocratic and pious hypocrisy, the fruity language and the bawdy innuendo.
Although the pilgrimmage is supposed to be an ascetic journey, a purifying of worldly baggage, it becomes an excuse for all kinds of revelry and gorging excess. This is amply shown in the final story. The destination, the shrine, is supposed to be a celebration of God, wholeness, unity, his Word, which was made flesh. And yet the film does not end with this wholeness, but with the final tale, which is actually two tales, those of the Reeve and the Miller, which interrupt each other with increasing speed and violence, until the authority of the single narrator is broken, and the Babel of stories and voices spills open. From the Word of God to the uncontainable, diffuse narratology of the people. Chaucer may shut them out and praise God, but follow him and we'd have no tales. Or 'Tales'.
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