David Lowery’s new film is an extraordinary cinematic experience, challenging the audience to venture into a work rich in symbolism and elusive meaning. It’s a melodic and slow journey with many thematically resonant tangents and a concern with anti-climax and failure. Understandably the film has been somewhat divisive, but beyond cries of “pretentious” and “boring” there is, as always, a far more interesting conversation to be had.
The film is an adaptation of the 14th century romantic poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, an anonymous work that has fascinated scholars and artists for centuries. Gawain (Dev Patel) is at the stories beginning a young and inexperienced member of King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) court. When a mysterious green knight (Ralph Ineson) challenges the knight to a peculiar game, Gawain is placed under a terrible obligation to set out into the wilds to finally make a name for himself and learn what it means to be a Knight.
Lowery and his production team have created a rich and inviting world. Through stunning visuals and richly evocative sound design, the film conjures a romantic and fantastical world that is recognisably English but also mythic without feeling contrived. It’s a unique but authentic landscape where grand adventure plays out amongst constant threat. But it is also an indifferent landscape that though fanciful is unsentimental, like Kubrick’s vision of Ireland, France and Germany in Barry Lindon. The witches, rituals, giants and ghosts of the poem are perfectly congruent with the threat of a brutal mugging and most significantly the threat of failure.
The primary concern of the film and it’s central character is what it means to become a knight in King Arthur’s kingdom. Far from the saintly, warrior king of legend, The Green Knight’s King Arthur is old, frail and indifferent to the suffering his reign has caused. Reference is made to the blood his knights spill for him, prisoners rot to their bones in cages strewn throughout the land around Camelot and vast battlefields offer slim pickings to impoverished citizens of his kingdom. It’s a grim indictment of the supposedly-noble king. This then is the journey of a man who idolises his king and wishes to prove himself.
Gawain sets off on his endeavour eager to earn a story to tell and a name to be respected. He carries with him gifts from his mother and uncle intended to protect him from all harm, but they soon prove to be worthless and his fate is terrifying his own to forge. Through numerous encounters with danger and temptation he eventually finds his way to the culmination of his spiritual journey and the nature of his revelation once there is complex. At first seemingly a realisation of the folly of heraldry and the value of earthly life, the rug is pulled twice (or would that be two rugs?). The ultimate lesson of heraldry that is revealed to Gawain is appropriately enigmatic. What is completely clear is that he choses to abandon the protection of his parents and friends, and learns to embrace his destiny. Perhaps what is significant about the final act of the film is not what is done, but why.
The Green Knight is a visual feast, an intellectual puzzle and an emotional powerhouse. THe symbolism of the film is more than an obtuse treasure hunt for the obsessive, but actually serves to illuminate the themes of the film. There’s great poignancy to it’s strange episodes and a tremendous feeling of an elusive but coherent message. This is a uniquely modern retelling of the myth, one that can embrace anti-climax and failure as key aspects of the human experience, without going on to inevitable fireworks in the finale. That a ponderous and quiet film could be made on the scale of a fantasy epic, exploring a deeply personal tale that will most definitely exclude some viewers from understanding and empathy is something of an act of gallantry itself. What does it mean to truly be a knight? Ultimately, Gawain learns this at the end of the axe that awaits us all.