Monday, October 18, 2021

"The Green Knight": review

"The Green Knight" is a 2021 fantasy-adventure film directed, written, and produced by David Lowery. It stars Dev Patel as Gawain, not quite a knight and therefore not yet Sir Gawain when we meet him. The film's story is based on the anonymous 14th-century poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," although the film version contains some major differences. Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, awakes in a brothel and rushes to a Christmas celebration at Arthur's court. He is, at this point, untested, but he yearns to gain honor and become a knight. A mysterious stranger suddenly appears in the court: a tree-like green knight who offers a challenge to anyone brave enough: strike a blow against him, and the warrior who does so can have the knight's axe, but in one year's time, that warrior must meet the knight at the Green Chapel, where the knight will return whatever blow was struck against him. Gawain, impetuous, beheads the green knight, who picks up his severed head and declares, "One year hence." A year passes, and Arthur reminds Gawain of his commitment. Gawain's mother is the sorceress Morgan Le Fay; she gives her son a charmed sash to wear around his waist as protection against all harm. Gawain departs for the Green Chapel and has several encounters with people and creatures both normal and magical, and in the end, he finally finds himself face to face with the Green Knight. What happens? I'll leave that unspoiled.

The first thing to note, for action hounds, is that this is not an action movie. It moves with a molasses-slow, surreal pace like a Terrence Malick film or like the Mads Mikkelsen film "Valhalla Rising." Don't go into "The Green Knight" expecting swooping, Spielbergian camera work, fast-paced fight scenes, and rapidfire, witty dialogue. This is a symbol-saturated, meditative movie about one glory hound's arc as he tries and frequently fails to live up to the knightly virtues he claims to aspire to but in reality doesn't much care for. The question of Gawain's character is foremost on our minds, and we see Gawain evolve, a little, over the course of the plot. The film gets ample help from talented costars: Sean Harris plays an old and sickly King Arthur; Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton play crucial roles, and Sarita Choudury is Morgan Le Fay the witch. Vikander is interesting because she plays two roles in the film: that of Gawain's peasant-girl lover and, later, the Lady Bertilak, who offers a monologue on the significance of the Green Knight's greenness, and what that greenness symbolizes: the power of primal nature, the passage of time, and the inevitability of death. 

I think I may need to give the film a second viewing because I was initially turned off by how slow-paced it was, but a slew of reviewer commentaries convinced me that the film deserves to be seen again so I may more deeply explore its symbolism. I like certain slow, thoughtful films, but not all of them. Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" struck me as overly pretentious and self-conscious, but "Valhalla Rising," by contrast, seemed profound, and so did Bae Yong-kyun's slow but deep "Why Did Bodhidharma Go East?" "The Green Knight" sits on the edge for me, caught somewhere between pretentious and profound. 

The elephant in the room, which most other reviewers seem not to want to discuss, is the race of the characters: Dev Patel, a fine actor, is English but of Indian stock, so I guess it made sense to cast Sarita Choudury, also English but of Indian heritage (and a fine actress herself), as his mother. They seem somewhat incongruous, as a result, in King Arthur's otherwise-whitebread court, but a director can take dramatic license with a well-known story, so maybe this casting choice isn't supposed to mean anything. Or is it? Some random villagers in this vision of Arthurian England were also black; I'm not sure I'd credit England with that sort of racial diversity back then. That said, race doesn't really figure into the story, but it does add a strange wrinkle and possible subtext to the proceedings. 

Overall, "The Green Knight" sits very much in "still waters run deep" territory, and it may take more than one viewing to unpack. It's rich in symbols, atmospheric in a Christianity-versus-paganism kind of way, filled with bizarre moments, and strange in how it combines visually striking images with occasionally low-budget-looking ones, especially during some of the sudden lighting changes, which give the film an anachronistic feel (as does the language, which melds older speech with certain modernisms). Go see it with my cautious recommendation, but don't be surprised if you find yourself puzzling over the story afterward. I'm not sure I'm as thrilled by this film as most critics were, but it could be that "The Green Knight" has layers that deserve further exploration.

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