The Green Knight
⭐ ⭐ ⭐⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, Joel Edgerton
Writer/Director: David Lowery
If you’ve been waiting for the perfect film to lure you back into a movie theater, don’t hesitate one moment longer: The Green Knight is here to welcome you with dazzling vistas, haunting performances, and a sweeping, timeless story.
The Green Knight is, simply, not home screen material. To witness writer/director David Lowery’s epic interpretation of ancient British folklore on anything other than the largest screen possible would be like reducing the Grand Canyon to a postcard; the Sistine Chapel to a page in a coloring book.
As King Arthur would probably put it, “Get thee to the cineplex.”
Like you, when it comes to watching movies, for the past year or so I’ve been a faithful patron of the Living Room Bijou.
Whether it was a Hollywood preview or a remote film festival offering, there I was slouched on my couch, six feet or so from a reasonably decent-sized screen, one part of my brain paying attention to the movie, the others preoccupied with that light in the hallway, the weird sound the refrigerator is making, or the nagging suspicion that there is probably something better showing somewhere on cable.
After all that time, I really, really wanted my return to the theater to be in the service of something special, and I knew Lowery, one of the most visionary directors of our time, would not let me down.
Unless you caught his inventive re-imagining of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon a few years ago, you have probably never seen a film by Lowery. But if you happened to experience his emotionally exhausting Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) or his mesmerizing A Ghost Story (2017), you know Lowery as a steadfastly confident filmmaker; one who seizes on an idea and plows ahead with it with ingenious recklessness. (In Ghost Story he cast Oscar winner Casey Affleck in the lead role — then threw a sheet over his star’s head and left it there for 80 percent of the film’s run time.)
There are numerous such Lowery-esque moments in The Green Knight, a largely faithful adaptation of the late 14th century poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” We meet Gawain (Dev Patel) as a troubled carouser, a nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) who is entitled to be called a Knight of the Round Table, yet who is vexed by his lack of a knightly résumé — you know, the dragon-slaying, maiden-saving stuff of medieval heroes.
During a Christmas banquet in the throne room, the doors fly open and in rides a hulking man (Ralph Ineson) — half tree, half human — who announces he is there to play “a game.” The rules are brutally simple: Someone in the room is invited to strike any wound he wishes on the visitor, with the understanding that one year hence he must seek out this green knight at his home, The Green Chapel, far to the north. At that time, the Green Knight explains, the wound inflicted upon him today will be returned upon this year’s participant.
Brave as they are, the knights hesitate. Only Gawain, seeing his chance to at last prove his knightly mettle, accepts. He strides forward and, perhaps not quite thinking things through, lops off the head of the Green Knight.
Gawain seems rather satisfied with his feat—until the headless knight rises, tucks his severed head under his arm and says to Gawain, in effect, “See you next Christmas.”
The year, as a title card recounts, goes “too quickly.” Compelled to keep his knightly vow, yet realizing to do so will mean certain death, Gawain clops off from Camelot on his trusty steed. It’s a six-day journey to the Green Chapel — the actual landscape here being the boulder-strewn, rock-cliffed wilderness of Ireland — but those are six mighty packed days for Gawain. Forced to walk most of the way after losing his horse, Gawain’s bone-chilling, stumbling route yields encounters with a gang of violent bandits, a charmed fox, a martyred saint who is searching for her own head, and a tribe of naked, skyscraper-height women who sing like blue whales. Gawain thinks he’s found respite in the castle of an aristocratic couple (Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander) — but along with providing plush bed and board, the creepily accommodating pair also relentlessly tempt him with any number of ways to betray his chivalric code.
It’s that struggle between honor and survival that permeates The Green Knight, and like the poem — which has frustrated medieval scholars from J.R.R. Tolkien to C.S. Lewis with its moral ambiguity — the movie refuses to cast judgement. Time and again Gawain is presented with invitations to veer from his chosen course, and along the way he does spend a good deal of energy seeking out loopholes. But for the most part he plods northward, knowing the probable fate that awaits him, realizing his code compels him to face it…yet seriously wondering what good a moral code is if it ends up getting you killed.
As you can imagine, Gawain spends a lot of time thinking in this film, and as in his previous movies, Lowery isn’t afraid to let the camera run for extended periods of thoughtful contemplation. Remarkably, despite all the big-screen spectacle The Green Knight has to offer, it’s these interludes of stoic reflection that give the film much of its visual power — particularly an extended tracking shot of Patel’s Gawain, wide-eyed and wondering, riding out from Camelot across a clouded plain, eyes straight ahead, a clutch of small children following, calling his name. At times like these, Lowery seems intent on momentarily taking us out of the movie, inviting us to stop imagining what the character is thinking and instead start probing our own sentiments regarding what’s going on.
With his starkly imaginative, often fantastical vision and his art house-friendly sensibility, Lowery seems to have one foot in the camp of Terry Gilliam and the other in that of Jean-Luc Godard. Yet he seems less susceptible to the self-consciousness those directors sometimes evoke.
He’s a story teller who doesn’t mind his audience adding a chapter or two of their own.
Featured image: The Green Knight (Eric Zachanowich, A24)
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