By Peg Aloi
Filmmaker David Lowery plumbs the depths of this ancient tale, discovering the places where the human and the otherworldly intersect, where the earthbound meets the ethereal.
David Lowery’s sumptuous, pensive medieval tale lacks the grandiose drama expected when The Matter of Britain is rendered on the big screen. The mysterious magic, wry wit and fateful tragedy of John Boorman’s Excalibur isn’t to be found, though The Green Knight takes a page from that 1980 epic in its lush color palettes and impeccable costume design. Nor is there the religious underpinning or historical reimagining of Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur, which focuses on the homeward journey of the grail questing knights and the pagan origins of Guinevere. The romantic glamour of Camelot is missing too, as is The Fisher King’s vision of intense psychological warfare. Yet Lowery’s intimate, heady epic seems inspired by all of these fine expressions of Arthurian cinema.
From its opening scene, in which a letter is read aloud and then flutters to the floor and catches fire, The Green Knight marries the mystical with the mundane, hinting that a world of sorcery lies beneath the everyday. And what story captures intimations of magic better than the layered, voluminous volumes of the tales of King Arthur and his Knights? The key players may be absent here (no Merlin, no Morgan le Fay, no Lancelot), but this version, adapted by Lowery from the anonymous 14th century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” is full of intrigue and mystery. Perhaps too much mystery for filmgoers who like their medieval adventure stories nice and clean-cut. But Lowery has foregone the literal in order to craft something much more subtle and immersive.
Sir Gawain is played by Dev Patel, a brilliant bit of casting that upends the notion that this quintessentially British story must be portrayed by white Western European-descended actors (as did Patel’s recent portrayal of the iconic Dickens character in Armando Ianucci’s brilliant The Personal History of David Copperfield). The notion of racial purity in a tale set in the past is ironic, given Europe’s history of slave trade, colonialism, and immigration. Some may say Patel’s appeal is more aesthetic than dramatic, but this young actor has proven he can summon gravitas time and again, making him a fine choice for this universal coming-of-age story.
It is Yuletide! Gawain enjoys late nights drinking and carousing at the tavern with his gamine lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury) is dismayed by her son’s lack of responsibility and ambition and she weaves spells to ensure his future success. (In Lowery’s incarnation of the tale, every woman has a witchy way about her.) Gawain is summoned by King Arthur (the wonderful Sean Harris), his uncle, and his wife Guinevere (Kate Dickie, a phenomenal actress). In the first of what will be many iterations of gloriously-detailed costuming, both King and Queen wear garments festooned with metalwork: tiles detailing epic tales form a kind of mesh breastplate on Arthur. He also wears an enormous silver pentacle (a symbol that pops up in various locations). Guinevere’s bodice is covered in tiny charms of gold and silver that depict horses, birds and various mythical creatures. This wearing of earthen ore hammered into mystic motifs may be our first hint of the narrative’s underlying theme: sovereignty’s connection to nature–or as Boorman’s Excalibur expressed it, “the land and the king are one,” a belief tied to ancient traditions of human sacrifice (as seen in 1973’s The Wicker Man and any number of folk horror films).
Arthur welcomes Gawain warmly, conveying his regret that he has not been closer to his nephew. He asks Gawain to tell his story. Gawain is ashamed, perhaps because of his lack of ambition, and confesses he has no story to share. Soon a mysterious guest arrives: a massive knight bearing a bough of holly (a nice nod to the pagan tradition of the Holly King/Oak King battle) and a huge metal axe. This is the Green Knight, played by Ralph Ineson (whose unmistakable voice read aloud the letter at the film’s opening). It’s another delicious bit of casting, because Ineson played the husband of Kate Dickie in Robert Eggers’ The Witch.
The knight seems made of gnarled wood and vegetation: neither human nor tree, a being wrought by magic, a living embodiment of nature. He challenges the bravest knight present to a game, and Gawain (perhaps a bit cavalierly) accepts. He nearly balks when he learns his challenge is to cut off the Green Knight’s head, but then he does so swiftly and decisively. The Knight re-attaches his head, then invites Gawain to travel to his home at the Green Chapel one year hence, so that he may return the favor. The quest begins.
Gawain’s journey begins elegantly enough: his well-provisioned horse, his golden velvet cape, and his gleaming sword accompany him through meadows and forests. A fox follows him, a sort of animal familiar. The landscape is sere and quiet; soon Gawain comes upon a battlefield littered with bodies. A young man offers to help him find the Green Chapel, but there’s mischief on his mind. Barry Keoghan, with his irrepressible American accent, is an odd choice for this role, but he is well served by his well-honed ability to play a wily asshole. Gawain moves on from this troubling encounter to another, with the ghost of a young saint, who also lost her head and wants it back. Each challenge contains a harsh life lesson, and Gawain grows more determined to prove his mettle with each encounter.
Gawain later comes upon a castle in the woods, occupied by an unnamed nobleman (Joel Edgerton, always excellent) and his seductive, bewitching wife (played by Alicia Vikander in a curious choice for double casting). Their dwelling feels removed from time somehow –the realm of faery, often portrayed in Arthurian lore? Still, Gawain finds himself subjected to many worldly temptations. The noblewoman has a brilliant speech inspired by the colors red and green, eventually expounding on verdigris (the green tarnish that forms on metal) and its relationship to aging, decay, and regret. In this scene and many that follow, the blue-green tones of verdigris figure prominently in clothing, crowns, scenery — even the glints of light on Gawain’s blue-black hair.
This melding of symbolism and metaphor with visual elements of color and texture makes for thrillingly subtle storytelling, evidence of a masterful collaboration between the director and his designers and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (who worked with Lowery on A Ghost Story). As the film continues, a brilliantly-rendered montage offers up an alternative life path for Gawain: at a fateful crossroads, he is given a choice, and a vision, embodying both his future and his possible legacy. I won’t say more, except to praise this segment as one of the most exquisite bits of film narrative I’ve seen in years.
There are some who might find The Green Knight too slow-moving or inscrutable to enjoy. But the film’s elegant intricacy and restrained pacing trancends the impersonal sameness found in today’s fantasy video games and swashbuckling adventure films, stuffed with digitally-rendered violence. Lowery plumbs the depths of this ancient tale, discovering the places where the human and the otherworldly intersect, where the earthbound meets the ethereal. The result is a spellbinding, and breathtakingly bold, cinematic experience.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.