The Green Knight (2021) The Green Knight (2021) ***

     Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an exceedingly odd poem, and a confection of paradoxes. One of the jewels of Medieval English literature, it nevertheless has somehow survived only in a single manuscript, and the identity of its author is lost to history. Linguistic evidence indicates that the unknown writer was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, but the verse style belongs to an era some 200 years earlier. It’s a quest narrative that disposes of the quest itself in just two stanzas out of 101— the same amount of space as it devotes to explicating the symbolism of the pentacle painted on its hero’s shield, and less than it spends detailing the Christmas festivities at Camelot which its villain disrupts by gate-crashing on New Year’s Eve. It’s a totally unironic tale of chivalry that hinges on the impossibility of living up to chivalric values without constantly putting one’s adherence to them in jeopardy. And like a great many Medieval romances, it’s a story steeped in surface-level Christianity, but set in a world over which the God of Abraham appears to hold no sway whatsoever. So in a cockeyed way, it’s rather appropriate that The Green Knight, David Lowery’s film adaptation for A24, turns the structure of the poem inside out, subverts the characterization of its hero beyond any possibility of recognition, and assumes a philosophical position antithetical to the source material’s. Why not add one more paradox to the pile, right?

     Fans of authentic Arthuriana will notice almost at once that Lowery’s conception of Sir Gawain is not the 14th century’s, nor even the somewhat shadier interpretation of the character that emerged in France during the 15th. Far from being the Round Table’s foremost paragon of courtly etiquette and an internationally renowned ladies’ man, this Gawain (Dev Patel, from Chappie and The Last Airbender) is a fuckup, a putz, and a wastrel, and he’s so thoroughly intimidated by the opposite sex that the only women he can just about handle are his mother (Sarita Choudhury, of Lady in the Water and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) and a prostitute by the name of Essel (Alicia Vikander, from Ex Machina and Seventh Son). Hell, he isn’t even Sir Gawain, strictly speaking, because his uncle, King Arthur (Sean Harris, of Isolation and Prometheus), has never taken enough interest in the extremely unpromising lad to knight him. That last bit, at least, starts to change one Christmas, when Arthur calls Gawain up to sit beside him in the chair usually occupied by the kid’s absent mother, who professed not to be feeling well enough for holiday revelry that morning. Although the king doesn’t say so in as many words, it’s obvious that his age and declining health have him thinking about the royal succession of late, and about how his own childlessness has put his Olympic-class doofus of a nephew first in line for the throne. Best start preparing him for the role before it’s too late!

     Canonically, Gawain is related to Arthur through the latter’s half-sister, Queen Morgause of Orkney. But what Lowery has Gawain’s mother doing during the Camelot Christmas party implies that he’s switched out Morgause in favor of Arthur’s other, more famous half-sister, Morgan le Fay. Instead of retiring to her bed as she led Gawain to believe, Mom gets together with three other witches to cast a powerful spell. The moment their conjuring is complete, a lichen-bearded, wooden-skinned knight more than seven feet tall (Ralph Ineson, of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and From Hell) tramps into Camelot’s reception hall astride the biggest charger that any of the invited guests have ever seen, experienced equestrians though they are. Sir Treebeard silently hands over a sealed letter, which Arthur gives to Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie, from Undergods and The Witch) to read aloud to the court. The gist of the Green Knight’s words— which disturbingly come out of Guinevere’s mouth in a rumbling male voice that we may assume to belong to the stranger— amounts to a bet of sorts. If any knight of the Round Table can land a single blow against him, the Green Knight will forfeit his enormous malachite battle axe as a prize. There’s a catch, though, in that the victor (if victor there be) must come visit the stranger at his home, the Green Chapel, in one year’s time, to receive a wound equivalent to the one he inflicts today, “be it a nick to the cheek or a slash to the throat.” Arthur’s knights, seasoned heroes of romance that they are, know a trap when they see one, even if they can’t figure out how it’s a trap, and the interloper’s challenge finds no takers. The king himself, meanwhile, is too infirm to fight any duels on his own behalf. The moment stretches tensely out until Gawain, seeing an opportunity to impress his uncle, volunteers to defend Camelot’s honor— for which service Arthur favors him with the loan of Excalibur, given that the lad has no sword of his own. It isn’t long, though, before Gawain starts to smell what he’s stepped in. Instead of assuming a fighting stance, the Green Knight lays down his axe and kneels before his opponent, bowing his head as if inviting Gawain to lop it off. This is not at all what the squire thought he was agreeing to, but a knight doesn’t get to back down from a challenge once accepted. Not knowing what else to do, he brings Excalibur down on the Green Knight’s exposed neck, and decapitates him with a single stroke. That’s when the trap snaps shut. Completely untroubled by what ought to be his mortal wound, the Green Knight retrieves his head from the floor of the hall, and rides off cackling into the frigid afternoon, reminding Gawain of the obligation that he’s placed himself under as he goes.

     The Green Knight devotes a surprising amount of attention to the ensuing year, and to the countervailing pressures to which it subjects Gawain. At Camelot, it is of course taken for granted that Gawain will ride out next Christmas to take his reciprocal beheading like a true man of honor. Arthur, indeed, seems almost to envy his nephew’s waiting doom, which the king’s enfeeblement prevented him from taking upon himself, and which would have brought his illustrious career to a suitably vivid ending. The local peasantry, on the other hand, have garbled the story of the royal Christmas party into an account of the Green Knight slain by a heroic squire, placing Gawain in the uncomfortable position of being feted wherever he goes outside the castle walls for something he never actually did. Essel, meanwhile, becomes fixated on the idea of her favorite john making not merely an honest woman of her, but a lady. But the least realistic assessment of the situation almost has to be Gawain’s own. He spends the whole year trying to convince himself that the Green Knight didn’t really mean what he said, and that he won’t really be required to hand over his head to some walking holly bush as a Christmas present next December. As the seasons wear on, though, the fate that Gawain so rashly brought on himself starts to seem almost attractive in comparison to the drastically disrupted life he’s been leading ever since he took Excalibur’s hilt in his hand. In the end, it’s Gawain’s mother who makes up his mind with a gift of her own. As the fatal holiday draws nigh, she presents him with an enchanted sash of green silk, which she claims will protect him from all harm so long as he wears it. Maybe a visit to the Green Knight won’t be so bad after all if Gawain’s carrying a Get Out of Decapitation Free card when he stops by.

     The perils and trials that confront Gawain on the road to the Green Chapel are not at all the sort that most viewers will be expecting, especially those of us who recall the poem’s litany of wood-trolls and ogres, wolves and wyrms, bears and boars and bulls. (And that, in case you were wondering, is why they call it alliterative verse.) Gawain first falls prey to a trio of nobleman-hating peasant bandits (Barry Keoghan, Emilie Hetland, and Anthony Morris), who give him a taste of the violence inherent in the system before running off with his money, his horse, and his magic sash, leaving him trussed up in the forest to fend for himself. Then, while seeking shelter for the night in an abandoned cottage, he has an encounter with the ghost of Saint Winifred (Solo: A Star Wars Story’s Erin Kellyman), who charges him to retrieve her head from the bottom of the pond behind the house. (“It may look like my head is on my shoulders, but I assure you it is not.”) He acquires an occasionally helpful animal companion in the form of a preternaturally clever fox. And one foggy day, he must cross a wide valley inhabited by hundred-foot giants, who seem to mean him no deliberate harm, but would think no more of squishing him by accident than he would think of stepping on a slug. Eventually, Gawain grows so enervated by the rigors of his quest that he can simply go no further.

     Gawain is rescued at that point by an unnamed knight (Midnight Special’s Joel Edgerton, who himself played Sir Gawain in King Arthur). The poem calls this character Bertilak de Hautdesert, though, so I propose we call him that, too, for the sake of convenience. Sir Bertilak is of sufficiently high rank to own several castles, dividing his time among them in roughly seasonal increments, so it’s fortunate indeed that Gawain reached his lands when he did. If he’d show up even a week later, there’d have been no one at all in the vicinity to aid him. It happens that Bertilak has heard tell of Gawain and his quest, as have his gorgeous wife (also Alicia Vikander) and aged, blind mother-in-law (Helena Browne). And as luck would have it, they also know the location of the Green Chapel. In fact, it’s less than a day’s ride away! Gawain is thus several days ahead of schedule, and Bertilak insists that he spend the time enjoying the hospitality of his castle, and resting up for his confrontation with the Green Knight. The traveler’s hosts make him increasingly uneasy throughout his stay, however. Bertilak invites him into a bargain that sounds as much like a hidden trap as the Green Knight’s challenge last Christmas. His wife delivers weird and disturbing speeches over dinner, and seems constantly to be trying to seduce her new guest. The old blind woman comes and goes in ways that are hard to account for given her disability. And on the afternoon when Lady Bertilak finally succeeds in getting into Gawain’s pants, she gives him an exact duplicate of his mother’s green sash— then as soon as she leaves the room, Gawain turns around to find the old dame spying on them from beside the bed, apparently unimpeded by her sightless eyes. That does it. Gawain decides to take his chances at the Green Chapel rather than spend a single minute more at Castle Bertilak, but before he gets there, he bumps into his host in the forest for the most uncomfortable encounter yet. Believe it or not, what happens there in the woods is taken directly from the poem— only there it’s even queerer than Lowery makes it here!

     I won’t go into what awaits Gawain at the Green Chapel, beyond to say that it effectively transforms The Green Knight into the weirdest imaginable remake of The Last Temptation of Christ. That isn’t an obviously apt or even reasonable approach to the source material, and it therefore took me a while to sort out what I thought of this movie. I had to arrive first at an operative theory of what Lowery was trying to do, since he clearly wasn’t just out to film this story as told by its centuries-forgotten author. My eventual conclusion introduces yet another layer of paradox, because it seems to me that what Lowery is really after here is the power of storytelling to change and to supplant in the memory the truth of the story being told. That’s ironic, because what initially drew me to The Green Knight was that it promised to be the first film in ages based on a body of antique legend that didn’t posit itself as some possible true story behind the legend in question. But whereas most such films take a drearily mundane and literalistic interpretation of the concept, and merely jettison the magic, the monsters, the gods, and so on, Lowery in The Green Knight leaves all the fantastical stuff in place— indeed, adds more of it than was present in the original poem— and seeks instead the clay-footed truth of Sir Gawain the man. If Lowery’s Gawain is “realistic,” that’s not because he lives in a world governed by the same natural laws as ours, but because he is physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally unremarkable— although like most of us, he aspires to be more than that while having no clear idea of how to go about it. The film hints at what it’s doing, too, before Gawain even sets out on his quest, with the peasants’ version of the Green Knight’s visit to Camelot. If the villagers living on King Arthur’s very doorstep can spin falling for a deadly ruse as a triumph fit to be commemorated in songs and puppet plays within weeks of the actual event, then surely the rest of us could turn Lowery’s Gawain into the one from the poem over the centuries that have elapsed since Once Upon a Time.

     Lowery’s approach to the story puts a premium on psychological credibility, and The Green Knight wisely invests far more heavily in characterization than films of this sort typically do. Nor does that apply only to Gawain, whom we repeatedly see being fearful and lazy and clueless and callow in ways that we’d rather not recognize so intimately. King Arthur is shown to be careworn and burdened with regret, but at the same time dangerously tempted by nostalgia for the glories of his prime. (I also like the implication that he, like Charlemagne, is at best semi-literate.) Essel has ambitions far above her station, but is at the same time skeptical of the values of the caste she dreams of joining. The resentments animating the bandits who rob Gawain will be shared (or at least fucking well ought to be) by anybody who has lived through the 21st century so far. Even the ghost of Saint Winifred comes across as a real, living person, although the writing for her feels jarringly modern for my taste. (Hearing a ghost in the Time of Legends deadpan “Why would you even ask me that?” like a character on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” might not unbalance your suspension of disbelief, but it sure threw mine for a loop.) The only characters who aren’t relatable for better or for worse are the ones whom we’re supposed to find uncanny and disconcerting: the Bertilaks, Gawain’s mother, the Green Knight himself. Compare this to something like Excalibur or any of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies, and you’ll appreciate at once just how unusual it is.

     I think the thing that appeals to me most about The Green Knight, though, is its emphasis on pure imagery. If you’re tired of heroic adventure movies in which brown-clad people stand glumly in the rain, then check out this movie for a glimpse at a slightly better world. To be sure, The Green Knight doesn’t represent quite as stark a break with the trend as I would have liked, but Lowery’s heart is in the right place. The production design has one foot in the actual Middle Ages and the other in the popular modern conception of them, often yielding unexpected juxtapositions of elements. Sometimes that means literalizing the symbolic, as in Arthur and Guinevere’s crowns, which have Byzantine-style halos physically built into them. At others, it means taking outmoded anachronisms seriously, as in the costume that Merlin (Emmet O’Brien) wears during the one sequence in which he figures prominently. And occasionally it means running buckwild down some interesting tangent, as in Lowery’s inspired decision to fuse the Green Knight with the Green Man, playing up the tension between the nominally Christian milieu of Arthurian romance and the pagan substrate so often exposed by even the slightest digging beneath the surfaces of such stories.

     But Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo also work just as hard at the all-too-often neglected arts of lighting, framing, and composition. For centuries, the only visual representations of stories like this one were to be found in paintings, and the visual language of painting is conspicuously the strongest influence on how The Green Knight was shot. It would be overstating the case to call this movie Bava-esque, but not by much. There’s a lot of thoughtfully symbolic deployment of color, some Renaissance-flavored reliance on shape and proportion to lead the eye through the frame, and good use of static tableaux to act as visual exclamation points at pivotal moments. The Green Knight impressed me in a more subtle way, too, with the inversion of what light and darkness usually signify. Everywhere good and wholesome in this movie— Gawain’s home, Essel’s whorehouse, Camelot, Saint Winifred’s cottage— is a virtually lightless cave, while the brighter, the airier, the more open a place is, the more frightening and inimical to human life it’s likely to be. The one exception is the shed-like structure where Gawain’s mother and her witchy pals cast the spell that conjures up the Green Knight— but maybe that’s not so much an exception as a clue. After all, she must have had some reason for doing what she did, and the subsequent course of the story more or less completely rules out Morgan le Fay’s motivation for creating the Green Knight in the poem. Maybe Lowery is trying to tell us that Gawain’s mom was the first Helicopter Parent.

 

 

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