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As it doth stand, to wit,
In story stiff and strong,
In letters fairly writ,
The land hath known it long.
For some poor English students in the United States and the United Kingdom, the text Gawain and the Green Knight was assigned reading, a piece of writing structured to be analysed and dissected until such writing loses all meaning. Luckily, I had the same experience with rather tedious texts like Cloudstreet, The Great Gatsby and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, but my experience with Gawain and the Green Knight was completely virginal.
I’ve never read Arthurian literature, nor ever heard of Gawain, and I had never come close to seeing any of the film or television adaptations of the text. When David Lowery’s film was announced, at first I thought it was a completely original medieval work from an idiosyncratic director whom I admire.
The Green Knight adapts the chivalric romance story written by an anonymous poet, concerning the tale of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), an overconfident and rather unskilled knight of King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) Round Table. At the Christmas Day feast, a strange green-coloured knight (Ralph Ineson), dressed in moss and bark, enters riding a horse, asking for any knight to step forth and try and strike a blow on him. If any man does so, he must then journey to the Green Knight’s home one year later and allow the Green Knight to return the same strike on that man. Gawain strides ahead, thinking of no consequences, decapitates the Green Knight, only for the man-creature to pick up his severed head and ride off. Gawain spends the next year revelling in his assumed victory, but the challenge must be upheld, and Gawain makes the journey across a lurid war-ravaged landscape to the Green Chapel and face his destiny or suffer the consequences of breaking his oath.
As was pointed out quite eloquently in Empire Magazine’s review of this film, writer and director and David Lowery is fascinated by death. It is not just the act of dying, but also its effect, immediate and following. The absence such a thing creates in people’s lives, and the crushing inevitability of it. In Pete’s Dragon, the young boy seeks a familial connection after the tragic death of his parents. In A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck’s death and eternal life as a ghost haunts Rooney Mara for a time, but he discovers how death is literally cyclical, outliving the universe until time resets and he finds resolution. In The Old Man & the Gun, Robert Redford is in the last phase of life and instead of fearing death, accepts his fate and lives fast and free until whenever his end may come. And with The Green Knight, we have character in Gawain who is asked to understand death but is merely a coward, afraid of fate and a victim of the hypocrisy of chivalry.
The King Arthur of this story is an old man, worn away by years of battle and conquest, and acts as a guiding hand to what Gawain should do with his life. Instead of being a hero king, proud and powerful, he is weak and regretful of his actions, hoping that the young men around him will do better. They won’t. Because of a manipulation of stories, they see battle as an ultimate height of masculinity. Bloodshed is good. Victory is best. Gawain strides forth, overconfident and foolish, locking himself in an oath he doesn’t understand.
Men marvelled at his hue
So was his semblance seen
He fared as one on feud
And overall was green!
Readings of the story are the same as long as the text has existed, so how does David Lowery reinterpret events? How are the characters and the themes of the poem re-translated on film? Lowery focuses deeper on the ideas of a “green knight” interrupting events of royal civilisation. He presents the landscapes outside of Camelot as barren and desolate places, rich with the stink of death and defeat. Smaller characters played by actors like Barry Keoghan and Erin Kellyman appear to reinforce these ideas, with Gawain being tormented by their presences as he comes to the slow realisation of his foolishness.
A major section of the film sees Gawain invited to the home of a Lord and Lady (Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander), who tempt him with riches and sexual awakening, like the weirdest version of “that couple” that saw you across the bar. Vikander plays a double role as the Lady and the prostitute Essel that Gawain loves when he’s at Camelot, feeding into this growing idea of sexual frustration, building with aplomb to a charged scene that ends foul yet effective.
Most importantly, the Lady has a moment where she confesses her innermost thoughts about the world, that all of this destruction and civilisation is nothing compared to the Earth beneath our feet. We build castles on top of the ground, but one day the ground will swallow it all. Nature is the ultimate victor, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. It is here that David Lowery’s intentions in adapting The Green Knight are apparent: he sees the story ultimately as one about conservation and environmentalism.
The inciting incident is literally a green creature. Gawain is constantly haunted by images of green lightning and the knight growing ever closer, as if by some fatalistic idea it will always be there. The Green Knight’s abode wherein Gawain must face him is a green chapel overgrown completely by tentacles of the forest. Nature will always return what has been stolen from itself. It is a bargain we make when we consume. The blow must be returned.
There is a moment, towards the finale of the film, where I was captivated in a way that I always crave during great films. When Gawain enters the Green Chapel to face the challenging knight, the knight lies still, asleep almost. His face changes so subtly to different forms resembling Arthur, the Lord, Gawain’s mother Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), the Lady/Essel, and Gawain himself amongst others. The Green Knight is everything and nothing to Gawain.
And then when the knight awakes, he moves to commit his responsive blow, only for Gawain to run away. What follows is a montage of death and pain, our “hero” crowned king, abandoning a woman birthing his child, that child growing to later die in a pointless war of unclear sides, and the King Gawain alone and faced with uprising, only for his head to fall away. What will follow is only worse than accepting fate. Off with your head.
There is a wealth of rich texture underneath the finely-tuned and beautifully presented surface of The Green Knight, and it beckons you to look closer and deeper, promising more enlightenment upon multiple viewings. Even if you don’t fully understand everything on first viewing (I would dare say that’s impossible), you become transfixed by its haunting beauty and dedicated performances.
Dev Patel, of course, cuts a handsome figure but it is depiction of a cowardly and underdeveloped man, self-appointed with a code of honour he never understands and unwilling to learn the truth of the world, that makes things so interesting. It is a magnificent performance by an outstanding actor, and we are all the better for it.
Even on a smaller budget, The Green Knight is expertly produced, perfectly shot by Andrew Droz Palermo, scored with precision by Daniel Hart, and David Lowery’s own editing is exceptionally confronting. It will challenge you, but The Green Knight is a powerful experience unmatched by any film this year. A fatalistic masterwork that may well be Lowery’s best film.
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery (based on the poem by Anonymous)
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton
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