The Green Knight
United Kingdom 2021
Directed by David Lowery
Warning: Very mild spoilers.
The Green Knight is just the latest in a long line of movies based on the Arthurian myth verses, written in the 14th Century, depicting the tale of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight. At least, that’s what it purports to be... I’m hearing that a lot of the characters and situations are misplaced and changed and some incidents even come from other works so... yeah, it would be true to say that it was inspired by, rather than a genuine adaptation, I think. Thankfully for me, I’ve not read the original text and I’ve somehow, not on purpose, managed to miss seeing any of the other versions of this so... yeah... I say lucky because I can’t be enraged with the various liberties taken with the text.
So instead, what I saw when I sat down to watch this, was a truly magical and surreal experience of a movie, starring Dev Patel as Gawain (who is not actually a knight at all in this one), supported by a wonderful cast including Alicia Vikander as his prostitute girlfriend (in a dual role actually)... who he spends nights with in the local brothel, Sarita Choudhury as his witch of a mum (a kind of misplaced Morgan Le Fey character, even though that character is also represented here later on in the movie, blindfolded... she wasn’t Gawain’s mum in the original, I think), Sean Harris playing a truly excellent and interesting version of King Arthur and Kate Dickie as his Guinevere.
The plot is simple and the reason I’ve been waiting to watch this until now is that it’s actually a Christmas movie (again, displaced from New Year’s Eve in the original text, I am told). The events take place at Christmas and then, for the next part, the days leading up to the next Christmas. A big creature of a person who seems to be made of wood, The Green Knight, shows up at Arthur’s castle during the Christmas feast and challenges a knight to ‘A Christmas Game’. One should fight him and, if he wins and beats him, then he has to present himself to The Green Knight’s chapel, a fair few days ride from there, the next year to quietly accept whatever blows or wounds which are done to the knight to be visited upon him in turn.
Of course, Gawain, who really wants to be a knight, accepts. Arthur lends him his sword, Excalibur and, thusly armed, he faces the enemy in the hall. The Green Knight, however, just puts his sword down and waits for whatever blow is delivered but Gawain, wound up by the odd atmosphere and not knowing what to do, takes his head clean off. Then, after a minute, The Green Knight gets up, picks up his head, and reminds him that he has to present himself to him to receive the same blow in a year’s time. The rest of the film is Gawain’s journey to that fateful meeting and, it has to be said, it gets quite surreal and more than a little ambiguous before the completely uncertain conclusion of the film (and even the post credits moment doesn’t help too much at this point, since the audience has become aware of the inherent trickery of the narrative to impart unreliable information).
The film starts off as it means to go on, with a shot of Gawain on a throne while a narrator (a mixture of voices of the director and his wife) leads the audience in and then we see Gawain's head suddenly catch fire, while leaving him unharmed, like he’s the lead character in an old Marvel Ghost Rider comic... and the roar of the flames as the sound grows, giving way to sudden silence and a black screen before a more tranquil, pastel toned image of the start of the story, proper, is revealed.
And this is something which the director keeps doing in this, truly breathtaking looking film (this is definitely a ‘buy the Blu Ray’ job when the time comes for a re-watch, although it looks like that’s only available in the US at the moment at an overinflated price), playing in contrasts of both sound and visual rhythm. The sounds keep dialling up and then leaving us in a wake of almost silence (and old trick but no less powerful) and also the visual rhythms cut from very fast, fluid tracking shots to slower and more leisurely paced camera movements mixed with the odd static shot. It’s like a visual collision of pacing but most of the time it’s fairly slow and sure. I love that the director has learned, where many modern directors haven’t, that to truly make a small incident in a film special... you need to surround it with a long lead in and a quiet approach. And, believe me, this film is very effective. Confoundingly non-conclusive, for sure (the director is definitely wanting you to bring your own conclusions with you by the end of the film) but the various set pieces are truly powerful, even when they are mere camera moves to reveal a different view point of what you think you are watching.
For example and without giving anything away, there’s an extremely beautiful ‘double 360 degree pan around’ a forest clearing where Gawain has been tied up and left for dead. The first time it catches back up to Gawain it reveals something you really aren’t expecting to see at this point and then, when it gets back to him again... okay, the second pan around gets to something more predictable but the whole shot, which must take somewhere between 30 seconds and a minute, is absolutely brilliant and really a key into the way creative expression is brought to the foreground of the movie. The music also is wonderful but, alas, at time of writing it’s not been released on a proper CD so it looks like I won’t get to hear it free from the bounds of the movie, which is a real shame.
There are lots of wonders which I daren’t reveal here (but, honestly, “chaos reigns” at one point ;-)) but the ending, it has to be said, is extremely ambiguous. You can always take the easy route and read the original text to see how it’s supposed to go but, like I said, the ending is deliberately vague as to the final fate of Gawain and, perhaps, even errs on the absolute opposite of the version in the original text. I guess it depends on how you choose to interpret it as to whether the film ultimately delivers for you but, I’d have to say I’d certainly recommend The Green Knight to all those who love what the magic of cinema can give us when used to create unique and interesting story telling formats. Definitely one I’ll be watching again at some point.