The Green Knight (2021)

greenkThe Green Knight is based upon a 14th-Century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which a gigantic knight attired in green, arrives at Camelot on New Years Eve and suggests a Christmas Game, in which one of Arthur’s knights may strike him once with his axe on the agreement that a year and a day hence, that person must arrive at the Green Knight’s own chapel so that the Green Knight may return the blow. When none of the knights of the round table dare, Arthur moves to take the challenge but instead Sir Gawain, his young nephew asks for the honour. The Green Knight kneels before him and Sir Gawain beheads him with one stroke- but the Green Knight does not fall; instead he picks up his severed head and reminds Sir Gawain of the bargain, that the young man must arrive at the Green Chapel a year hence. So a year later Sir Gawain begins his journey from Camelot to the Green Chapel in a test of his courage and honour, not knowing if he is fated to return.

Oh, a surprise contender for film of the year here- I REALLY enjoyed this one. I was totally swept up by the slow, almost funereal pace (very Villeneuve, particularly Blade Runner 2049) the intense atmosphere, the almost tangible sensation of the power of myth, of the power of story, and the reader/viewer grasping for meaning in a narrative strange, impenetrable and wondrous… it was utterly intoxicating. Its no accident that an early key scene has the old, waning King Arthur asking his entourage for a story, or that later we see villagers watching events retold in a puppet show: story, myth, legend, this film is more about the power of narrative, allegory and meaning than it is an actual tale of a Knight on a quest (albeit, the simple truth of the film is that Sir Gawain is no knight- its more the story of a very flawed man on a quest). 

In some respects, this film is utterly at odds with modern audience expectations, accustomed as we are to frequent prophecy of ‘The Chosen One’ whether it be either Anakin or Luke  in Star Wars or Neo in the Matrix or Paul Atreides in Dune, or of a hero going on a journey and succeeding in some selfless act of bravery (like Frodo, say, in The Lord of the Rings). We have become programmed to expect one thing, when instead this film gives us another, older truth. Again, The Green Knight reminds one of Blade Runner 2049 and its own protagonist who believes he might be special, the miracle child, only to learn that he isn’t. In The Green Knight, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is always found lacking-instead of doing great deeds, right from the start he is recovering from a drunken night in a brothel; he’s more playboy than noble knight, unable to appreciate the events around him (he totally misses the ‘point’ of the Christmas Game, decapitating the prone Green Knight when he has already been assured he will have to reciprocate in a years time: all Gawain can think about is the moment, the immediate gratification of now, he cannot grasp the ‘bigger picture’ and any sense of responsibility). Shortly before., Arthur (Sean Harris) asks Sir Gawain “Tell me a tale of yourself, so I might know thee,” but Sir Gawain blankly responds that he has no tale to tell. This moment of self-realisation is all for naught, however: any clarity all too fleeting. Gawain doesn’t realise that he needs to earn his tale, needs to work for it, instead simply seizing immediate opportunity when it is handed to him (when the Green Knight arrives and offers his Christmas game): it may be unintentional, but I rather fear that there is something oddly modern about Gawain in this film, that perhaps he reflects us of today, as he seems throughout the film so very out of place and time in the halls of Camelot. He cannot be selfless, or patient, he is always caught up in the present, he always asks what is in it for him, or fails to be charitable- even when he tries to be good, he does so chiefly for a price or reward.

The beauty of this film is across numerous fronts: first the story is absorbing and enigmatic and, as I have noted, likely confounds many expectations. It is swamped in allegory and hidden meanings, and has several absolutely arresting moments. At one point Gawain is ambushed by thieves deep in a forest and is left there, tied up- a slow panning shot spins from a frustrated Gawain to eventually return to him, time having passed and his corpse lying there, still bound by rope, now reduced to bones before turning again and returning to him, alive again, seeking escape (we are teased by alternatives, possibilities, particularly at the very end). Later he witnesses huge giants crossing a wide valley, literally as if the magic is walking away, the pagan world replaced by the Christian.

Alice Vikander plays both Gawain’s commoner lover, Essel, and later in the film the lady of a castle who attempts to seduce him while her husband is out hunting. Why she plays both characters I do not know, except that she represents in both guises the same temptation of the flesh which a true knight should be able to resist for honour’s sake (Gawain fails, naturally). In any case, in what I believe is the key moment of the film, as the beautiful lady of the castle she delivers a speech describing the power of green; “moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues. This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones. Your virtue…  Red is the color of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb. Green is what is left when ardour fades, when passion dies, when we die, too.” Less Love Conquers All than Nature Conquers All, suggesting that no matter all mankind’s achievements and wonders, all will surrender back to nature eventually. Perhaps the Green Knight represents a pagan God, or Nature herself, and Gawain the future of a mankind forsaking its roots in favour of artifice and progress. The beauty of Nature, certainly, seems a major subtext of the film, dominated by breath-taking imagery and location filming- in a very tactile way, the land and the weather of the British Isles is a character of the film, perhaps the most important one. It is perhaps suggesting that we are the land, that the land is us, in a similar way to how, in John Boorman’s 1981 Arthurian film Excalibur, Perceval learns that King Arthur and the land are one, and thereby gains the Holy Grail.

I thought The Green Knight was a spectacular and absorbing film, certainly one of the best I have seen this year. I watched it on Amazon Prime but wish I had seen it at the cinema- I sincerely hope that it will be released on 4K disc eventually, I would love to see it again in the highest quality possible (the stream on Amazon was 4K UHD but the compression wasn’t the best, with frequent blocking in some of the many darker sequences reinforcing the fact that disc is best). Its definitely not a film for everyone and will clearly divide audiences, but I thought it was wonderful and a worthy successor to John Boorman’s film.