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Photo: ‘The Green Knight’/A24
At long last, one of the year’s most feverishly anticipated releases has fought its way onto movie screens around the world (except for the U.K. that is, skyrocketing Covid-19 cases causing the studio to ironically jettison the film’s theatrical release in the very country from which it’s folk mythology is derived from). David Lowery, director of ‘A Ghost Story’ (2017) and ‘Pete’s Dragon’ (2016), has returned to cinemas with a surreal yet rapturous retelling of the famed 14th century chivalric romance of Arthurian lore; “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.
Audiences expecting the epic scale of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or steadfast moral fortitude of typical Camelot fare will find themselves decidedly bewildered by the introspective asymmetry of ‘The Green Knight’ (2021) The latest masterclass in subversion from A24, the titans of modern experimentalism responsible for films like ‘The Lighthouse’ (2019) and ‘Moonlight’ (2016), ‘The Green Knight’ ultimately feels more akin to ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988) than it does ‘The Sword in the Stone’ (1963).
‘The Green Knight’
Steeped in spellbindingly symbolic cinematography, immaculately elaborate costumes, and exceedingly grandiose scenery, the film is an ample feast for fans hoping for top-notch technical craftsmanship and dream-like cinematic escapism. But layered on top of it all is a rousing deconstruction of the Arthurian hero and hypnotic tragedy of cowardice headlined by a career-best performance from ‘Lion’ (2016) star Dev Patel as the headstrong Sir Gawain sure to challenge its audience in the best ways possible.
Just as the fable of Sir Gawain stands apart both formally and allegorically from the dominant chivalrous legends of its time, so too does ‘The Green Knight’ paint a fairly different portrait of King Arthur, his gilded Knights of the Round Table, and the cavernous halls of Camelot than many may be used to. The audience first meets Patel’s Gawain adrift in a drunken stupor after spending a night in a lowly brothel, a pail of water heaved onto his face by Alicia Vikander’s Essel. Realizing he’s late for a Christmas ceremony at the court of his uncle, Sean Harris’ King Arthur, Gawain hastily dresses himself and jaunts through the frost-stricken city’s endless towers and tenements.
Right from the start, Patel conveys a trepidatious longing for honor beyond his station, adrift amongst a sea of both peasantry and pedantry yet not quite belonging to either. The festivities are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a colossal otherworldly stranger on horseback brandishing a magnificent oaken axe; Ralph Ineson’s titular Green Knight. The looming figure challenges the court to a special Christmas Game; if one of the court members can land a blow against him they shall receive his prized axe, but whatever injury is inflicted on the giant will, in turn, be inflicted upon the assailant a year hence at the knight’s mythic Green Chapel.
Shock and panic sweep the room, no one stepping forward to meet the creature in combat until Gawain disquietly volunteers. In a confused rage, Gawain beheads the Green Knight assuming the game to be over before it has even begun. His anger is quickly replaced by an impending dread when the decapitated body rises from the ground, seizes its dismembered head, and cackles “One year hence!” After a year filled with songs of Gawain’s glory and marred by an unspoken sorrow, the tragic hero sets off on a reluctant quest to honor his fateful bargain while desperately clinging to the hope that he will be able to return home more than just a nobleman – but also a nobleman.
A Dynamic Cast In Support of a Pitch-Perfect Star Turn From Dev Patel
Gawain’s quest leads him to many new faces both friendly and otherwise, offering the opportunity for some entertaining cameos and scene-stealing supporting performances. Gawain is first greeted on his road by ‘Eternals’ (2021) star Barry Keoghan as a spritely scavenger pursing through a battlefield of dead soldiers. The traveler offers the persistent Keoghan some coin in exchange for some directions but the forager turns out to be a conniving bandit who robs the unsuspecting knight blind, offering the young actor the chance to flex some of his more dastardly acting capabilities not seen since his breakthrough ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ (2017). The next figure Gawain comes across on his journey is ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ (2021) actress Erin Kellyman’s restless spirit Winifred.
While arguably the film’s weakest link, Kellyman is serviceable as the headless apparition and proverbial “Ghost of Christmas Future” for the uncertain paladin. The final stop on the knight’s journey brings him to a desolate castle occupied by Joel Edgerton’s Lord, Alicia Vikander’s Lady, and a mysterious blindfolded woman who watches over the manor. Gawain is tested by all three, failing each in the same way he had the Green Knight a year prior, and both Edgerton and Vikander make a tangibly stirring impact in the few scenes that they share. ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011-2019) actress Kate Dickie, ‘Mississippi Masala’ actress Sarita Choudhury, and the aforementioned Harris all offer additionally memorable takes on the well-known Arthurian figures of Queen Guinevere, Morgan Le Fay, and the boy who pulled the sword from the stone – now a frail and aging king.
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While all competent, they ultimately serve as supporting fodder for Patel’s mesmerizing performance as Gawain. The oscar-nominated actor turned heads with his debut performance in Danny Boyle’s Best-Picture winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008), many fans waiting for his official coronation as one of Hollywood’s most talented budding stars. While certainly a little late, ‘The Green Knight’ may very well serve as the perfect vehicle for Patel’s mainstream cultural ascension, offering the actor the freedom to craft a complicated anti-hero unlike any most have seen before. While Gawain may not be the audience’s narrative surrogate, he does serve as their main emotional connection throughout the course of his journey, somehow maintaining their sympathy despite his continued foolish ignorance. Very few young performers could have carried the film through its more lucid eccentricities, but Patel truly proves himself as one of the most gifted actors working today with his work in ‘The Green Knight’.
Brilliant Cinematography is Easily the Best of the Year So Far
While the film’s cast offers more than enough talent to keep audiences at least attentive and at best enthralled, ‘The Green Knight’ is bolstered by a non-stop stream of beguilingly beautiful visuals from up-and-coming cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo. The second collaboration between Lowery and Palermo after ‘A Ghost Story’, that latter has very few noteworthy credits to his name, making the optical genius of the film all the more miraculous.
Color plays a rather large role in the film’s storyline (Vikander’s character memorably remarking upon the significance of the Green Knight’s chosen hue in relation to the complexion of the universe), and Palermo’s photography aptly reflects this theme through its fluid succession of both dull and vibrant shades. The visuals are only matched by the impressive costume design by Malgosia Turzanska, Gawain’s billowing yellow cape perfectly meshing with the gorgeously selected scenery. A particularly affecting shot involving nomadic mountain-sized creatures wandering across a sparse lapidarian terrain is sure to stick with audiences long after the film has finished and the eventual fate of Sir Gawain has drifted far from their minds.
A Wealth of Inspiration Matched by Lowery’s Ever-Inventive Direction
Before the release of ‘The Green Knight’, Lowery named the five movies that directly influenced his interpretation of Gawain’s fable; Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928), Jim Henson’s ‘The Dark Crystal’ (1982), Ron Howard’s ‘Willow’ (1988), Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Dracula’ (1992), and Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antionette’ (2006). Although some of these connections may be more overt than others, each shares a similar through-line of unwitting protagonists forced to wearily tread down dangerous roads without truly comprehending what awaits them at the end of their journey.
It also bears repeating that while Lowery has not commented on the similarity between the two, the film’s final twenty-or-so minutes bear a striking resemblance to the conclusion of Martin Scorsese’s aforementioned ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. While avoiding direct spoilers for either film, each ends with their central figures being shown an imperfect vision of how things may become if a certain action is not taken to counteract them in the present, leaving the audience in the dark as to the true nature of the mirage until the final moments of each.
While there are certainly central texts ‘The Green Knight’ is fundamentally indebted to, the film’s greatest strength can be found in director David Lowery’s unique flair and purposeful inelegance. Lowery made a name for himself by treading the line between satisfyingly sincere studio-friendly adventures and lyrically ambiguous dissections of the soul. While ‘The Green Knight’ is unlikely to be construed as the former, it represents a clear progression for the director towards a happy medium, not only credited for his lofty ideas but also his uniquely stimulating execution of them. At the end of the day, ‘The Green Knight’ will likely divide some audiences due to its markedly morose mood and atypical construction, but if audiences surrender themselves to the film’s hypnotic grandeur they are sure to find the booming echo of the Green Knight linger in their minds for far longer than one year hence.
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Kate Dickie, Sarita Choudhury
Cinematographer: Andrew Droz Palermo | Editor: David Lowery | Score: Daniel Hart
Director: David Lowery | Writer: David Lowery | Producers: Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, David Lowery, Tim Headington, Theresa Steele Page
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.