The Green Knight
Young Gawain (Dev Patel), nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), desires the opportunity to prove himself to his uncle, and eagerly accepts the challenge of a menacing stranger that enters Camelot one evening: the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). After hewing off the figures head with one stroke, Gawain is stunned to see the Knight pick up his head and walk off, with the agreement he will get to return the blow in one year. When the time passes Gawain embarks on a quest to find the Knight and fulfill his end of the bargain, and makes his way through multitude of trials testing his honour, virtue and morality.
Sir Gawain And The Green Knight is a text I was familiar with only through the Terry Jones narration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, and his jaunty recitation is the sort of thing that makes the tale seem like a whimsical, almost comedic at times, quest by a romantic hero through the sort of pitfalls and travails that are never really to be taken too seriously. David Lowery’s The Green Knight is something else entirely. From the source material is born one of the most brooding, moody films I have seen in a long time, one where every shot, character, line and movement seems laden with deeper meaning, and where one feels directly challenged by what is being presented: a story that mixes themes of honour, damnation, magic, worth, evil, lust and ambition into one impressive medley.
There’s a lot to unpack here but I’ll start by saying how much I loved Lowery’s dark take on this story. From source material that is focused very much on Gawain’s almost impeccable sense of honour, we are here presented with a different Gawain, who likes drinking, having sex with prostitutes and only answers the titular Knight’s challenge because it is a means whereby he can impress King Arthur. This is not a Gawain who enters into his quest with a strong moral compass, this is a Gawain who is looking to find out if he really has one at all.
Patel is quite good here. I mean, he usually is, but his Gawain is that great mix of likable, detestable, naive, worldly and a lot in-between. He’s a deeply flawed person whose ambition outweighs his abilities, and yet we do find ourselves rooting for him, maybe because of how well Patel plays this sometimes audience surrogate who routinely finds himself coming up against fantastical obstacles. He wants to prove himself, he wants to have a story to tell, and that’s what we can get behind, even with all of the other weakness, negativity and sometimes blind stupidity that comes with the character. Sometimes it’s just a look in the eyes, sometimes it is something much more than that, but I really enjoyed Patel’s performance, a grounded anchor as we set off into the world of The Green Knight.
The resulting quest is an episodic thing, but one that rarely disappoints. The various tests pit Gawain against a band of grubby scavengers, their leader ably played by Barry Keoghan; the spirit of St Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who in the course of only a few minutes manages to subtly introduce an element of #metoo to the whole affair; a temptress in a castle who brings Gawain’s weakness to the fore in a very sordid manner; magical foxes, giants, and, oh yes, the Green Knight right at the end of the story, who will present Gawain with the hardest challenge of all: answering the question as to whether the upholding of our word is worth dying for. Amid it all there are other challenges: an assessment from an ailing King Arthur, a mother who has her own dark secrets and a girl back home from a lower station Gawain just can’t bring himself to treat honourably.
I have a feeling that you could ask a hundred people what this film is about and get a hundred different answers. It’s about the pursuit of honour certainly, and determining just what that means: as one character asks, is demonstrating his honour really going to make Gawain a different person? It’s about death, and humanity’s efforts to avoid it ironically stymieing our own lives: when facing an axe, Gawain asks “Is this all there is?” and gets the answer “what else should there be?”. It’s about a nihilistic version of environmentalism, as the title character becomes a sort of avenging angel of nature, one whose powers of growth and green speak to the inevitability of mankind’s destruction: a real “nothing beside remains”. And it’s about power, and whether one should seek it out. I could go on and on, but it suffices to say that The Green Knight is not shy on showcasing its depths, through its wonderful script, and a succession of excellent performances in its supporting cast: Harris, Vikander, Keoghan and Ineson are all great here.
And the film’s ending is worth commenting on too. The nearest thing that I could compare it to would be Christopher Nolan’s Inception: a conclusion where instant gratification for a curious audience is lacking, but which instead presents the argument that, as contrived as it may be to say, sometimes it is the journey that is important, not the destination. It takes guts to pull something like that, and to deviate from the conclusion of the source materials as Lowery has. Sometimes such choices are film-wrecking: in this instance I would say that it works out just fine.
Lowery directs the kind of production that really does have to be seen to be fully believed. It’s a film that moves really well between worlds of light and dark, and yet never lets you escape from an oppressive sense of gloom, desolation and destruction. We see that in musty Camelot interiors early on, and we see it the wide world of Arthurian England, which in Lowery’s vision is a place of vistas that seem endless and are staggeringly unwelcome. It’s wet, it’s overcast, it’s a field of felled trees, it’s a landscape of churned earth, it’s a trudging misery, and this feeling seeps its way into every frame.
More than that, Lowery uses the idea of spinning circles – like in a Punch & Judy show that brings a different element to Gawain’s story, but also in shots of his trek through the expanse outside – to really discomfort the viewer, and imbue in us a sense that we are part of a story that is fundamentally off. Something is wrong in the world of The Green Knight, and the very deepest part of the story is about setting that wrong right: Lowery, with Andrew Droz Palermo in the cinematographers chair, does a brilliant job of making that feeling clear visually. I mean, you would get that for the titular character alone: a strange amalgam of person and tree, whose rolling voice cuts right to the heart. The whole thing is dreamlike, and it sucks you into this strange world effortlessly. You feel like everything must mean something, right down to the goose that pecks at a goat in the opening scenes.
I loved this movie, and I think that I love it more the more that I think about it and the various messages that it is trying to impart. Dev Patel gives a fantastic performance in the main role, the supporting cast is great, the script, cinematography and music all combine wonderfully and it is a film that invites you to actually think about things at the conclusion. This is the kind of film that I think only comes along a few times a year really: that wonderful marriage of fine directing, fine acting, fine narrative and fine production. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of A24).