Don’t Lose Your Head

Ready to play ‘The Beheading Game’? David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021)

The Green Knight – a review

[spoiler alert]

David Lowery’s haunting, hallucinatory re-imagining of the 14th Century Middle English verse romance, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, was delayed from its original May 2020 release because of the pandemic. Fended off like the fatal blow of the antagonist several times since, it has been worth the wait. Lowery has adapted the source text in a structurally bold and visually stunning way. It makes striking acknowledgement of textual sources – suggesting through a rapid flickering of fonts the many versions and variants. ‘Gawain’ is a cultural virus that has mutated through the centuries, being re-translated and retold in myriad forms. There have been scholarly and poetic tellings from Tolkien, and the former poet laureate, Simon Armitage; theatrical and operatic versions – most notably Birtwistle’s; adaptations for the small and silver screen (most faithfully in David Rutkind’s lucid 1991 version); and numerous usages of key elements of the story in comic book, computer game, and TTRPG. But Lowery, with his dreamlike, visionary style, has reclaimed ‘Gawain’ for the big screen – but with a storytelling style that has its roots in European art-house cinema more than Hollywood. This feels wilder; riskier: it is hard to predict where it will take you, or what astonishing image will appear next. And yet there is narrative traction, and a thematic coherency about it: the leitmotif of the circle binds the film together – in the Round Table, King Arthur’s crown; the sinister ritual of shadowy priestesses; Gawain’s shield; and the famous ‘green garter’ or belt of protective spells, which is given him by both his mother (a dominating Circe-like presence played by Sarita Choudhury), and ‘The Lady’.

Lead us not into temptation … Alicia Vikander’s The Lady tests Dev Patel’s Gawain

Gawain, played with conviction and charisma by the brilliant Dev Patel (who is carving a name for himself in ‘colour-blind’ literary adaptations, such as Armando Iannucci’s Great Expectations), is an ignoble, compromised figure: a hedonistic, amoral Prince Hal we hope will become our Henry V.  King Arthur is depicted in full Fisher King mode (played intensely by Sean Harris), and yet Gawain is no Parsifal. His sorceress mother appears to set in motion a series of events that will lead to her son’s betterment, either societally or in terms of his maturation. Gawain is a pawn, but a self-aware one, at one point asking is it ‘A game?’ Arthur replies: ‘Perhaps. Yet the Beheading Game that is instigated by the dramatic arrival of the uncanny Green Knight at Arthur’s court is deadly serious – one with inexorable consequences. A moment of valour leads to a year-long countdown to a gruelling journey into the wild north. Here Gawain is tested by tricksters, ghosts, giants, and apparently friendly hosts, along with the more-than-human world of nature itself. Indeed, an ecolinguistic subtext rises to the surface in The Lady’s extraordinary pagan paean. And it is tempting to see the Green Knight himself as the very scion of environmental justice. Yet the mighty antagonist Gawain must face feels less the vengeful face of nature, and more a moral and spiritual catalyst. In a mind-bending dilated alternative timeline, we behold a possible fate for Gawain in true ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ style. This is foreshadowed by the ‘death’ of the protagonist in the forest: the camera panning around the seasons like the rotating backdrop in the puppet show. Gawain is bound to Fortuna’s wheel – a victim of circumstance until he finds his own moral compass, his inner chivalric code. After being tested by the irresistible Lady Bertilak (played with sensuous power by Alicia Vikander) and her husband (played with earthy vigour and sexual ambivalence by Joel Edgerton), Gawain finally arrives at the Green Chapel and reaches a kind of apotheosis, sitting in Buddha-like contemplation beneath the ‘Bodhi tree’ of the sylvan lord. What risks being an anti-climax transforms into the most astonishing sequence in which Lowery – both writer and director – strays fullest from the well-trodden woodland path. To discover what the errant ‘knight’ finds in his personalised heart of darkness, you will have to seek the film out. There is only one misstep in my mind in this otherwise masterful revisioning of the poem – the CGI fox, which feels like a concession to a younger audience, a stray from another kind of ‘fantasy’ movie. Perhaps it only jars because Lowery has otherwise served up a feast of Fantasy of the highest order, one that deftly straddles the medievalist and the modern – in music, costume, and mise-en-scène. It knowingly weaves in its sources, while simultaneously transcending them. This is the best Arthurian movie since John Boorman’s 1982 Excalibur and is a worthy inheritor of the crown. Go on a quest and hunt it down in a cinema: it’ll reward your effort.

Kevan Manwaring, 30 September 2021

David Lowery’s ‘The Green Knight’ – a cinematic triumph

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