Director: David Lowery
Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury
David Lowery’s Arthurian odyssey ought to have played wide in cinemas here in the UK, but that ship sailed once Entertainment Film Distributors struck a deal with Jeff Bezo’s shopping empire. As a result, you’ll be very lucky if you have the opportunity to see the film writ large. It’s a shame, and a sign of the sorry state of things for cinema at present. It’s among the most high-profile of such disappointments, but by no means the first example.
Forced to watch Lowery’s film on a small screen, I was struck by how thoroughly it asked for a large canvas. The director employs the scale of vistas (both real and enhanced) as Peter Jackson once did for The Lord of the Rings. The artful use of chiaroscuro and shadow would doubtless be rendered more powerful in the dark enclosure of a cinema. And the hushed whispers that make up most of the dialogue exchanges are too easily challenged on an inadequate home system. Separating the quality of the film from this sense of inherent loss adds another, lamentable layer to quantifying it.
The Green Knight tells the legend of the knight Gawain (Dev Patel), an untested fellow of the Arthurian round table, whose endeavours to make a name for himself lead him on a strange path indeed, one marked constantly by the presence of death. He sees trees felled for industry. He traverses a rotting battlefield of the dead. He encounters a graceful apparition in search of a head – prefiguring his own assumed fate. Lowery’s preoccupations have tended toward the mortal on several occasions (see the elegiac sweep of A Ghost Story or the reflective celebration of The Old Man & The Gun), making this choice of chronicle not so surprising.
It goes thus. One Christmas, the mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) makes his approach at the King’s (Sean Harris) table to offer a game. If one of the knights present can lay a blow on him, he shall leave, but that knight will – in one year’s time – travel north to meet him at his own chapel, to receive an unguarded blow in kind. When, in hubris, Gawain takes up the challenge, the Green Knight offers up his head. Gawain strikes with a decisive blow… But the Green Knight is something other than a man, and rides out of court with his severed head in hand. A year later, Gawain travels to honour his part in the game under the cloud of impending death. He was tricked by his own upstart ambition.
His journey is pocked by seducers, tricksters, giants and doubles; a fantastic odyssey of further temptations and tests that both question and develop his character. Patel is superb in the part. In early scenes he is positively ‘laddish’, arrogant but filled with eagerness for life. His experiences do battle with such naivety. The nicks and scars he comes to wear are psychological in nature, reflecting the ways in which we are all worn and changed on our journey toward the inevitable.
“Is this really all there is?” Gawain asks of his opponent in a moment of existential horror. “What else ought there be?” is the dreaded reply. The accelerating turns of the third act perhaps fly against the expectations of such legends. But, in doing so, the tale offers us thornier and more thought-provoking truths. Gawain is one of the more fascinating figures in this collection of fables. His very fallibility becomes an often uncomfortable reminder of the real. Unlike his foe, he is all too human.
The mosaic of images at the film’s end draw us out of fantasy. A long, wordless and eerie reminder of the corruptibility of man that we see endlessly rendered in our own leaders, here in the UK and across the seas. The Green Knight is perhaps a film about where that rot begins. Posing the question and not necessarily providing the answer. Whether the film’s final moments do indeed redeem Gawain are for you to decide.
Rhapsodic in its beauty, Lowery’s film risks seeming like a gilded lily. With his DP Andrew Droz Palermo and the many efforts of the production team, Lowery has created a work ensorcelled with its own aesthetic prowess. Be it the golden light of the Green Knight’s domain or the misty hills roamed by mysterious giants, The Green Knight is an exquisite feast for the eyes. It seems churlish to challenge a film on being too impressively rendered. One might argue, though, that it creates a distance. It’s incredibly easy to fall for the gorgeousness on display, but is it as easy a film to simply love?
Time will tell on that score. A film like this reveals itself more in how eager we are to revisit it down the line in 6 months, 12, or the ensuing years. I have the feeling this will become a cult title, revered and protected by a set of stalwart devotees. Produced by A24, it certainly adheres to a growing aesthetic common within their stable with visual reminders of The Witch (not just in the presence of Ineson and Kate Dickie) and the folkish horrors of Midsommar.
But, just as this is a tale drawn from times long ago, the cinematic connections can be drawn further back than the recent past. Éric Rohmer’s Perceval came to mind, particularly; another film that told of such legends while reminding the viewer throughout of its own artifice. And you can reach further still, to Douglas Fairbanks, the 1920s and The Thief of Bagdad.
For the here and now, however, this is filmmaking of abundant craft, and one of the most giving fantasy pieces in memory. If a cinema showing it is within your reach, take up your steed, summon your favourite talking fox, and begin your quest.
Oh, and FUCK AMAZON AND EFD for robbing many of us of the choice.