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.

The King

thekingOne thing is certain about this gloomy, low-key, decidedly modern take on Henry V: Timothée Chalemet is a future superstar, and his performance here in the title role has me so intensely excited for Villeneuve’s Dune next year that its almost painful knowing that film is still over a year away. If his Paul Atreides is as dark and moody and charismatic as his young Hal here, we will be in for something truly special. He can hold the viewers attention with a frown or a stare, and is surprisingly adept physically considering his slender boyish frame- he commands the film in every scene he is in, holding his own despite the great cast that threatens to steal the film from him.

If only the film was the sum of its parts. Certainly, it looks great, with beautiful cinematography and excellent art direction and set design. It sounds even better, with an absolutely gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell that deserves Oscar attention but will no doubt be ignored. It runs over two hours so never feels particularly rushed, the editing as deft as one could hope for, giving the scenes time to breathe, and the performances opportunity to shine.  As for those performances, Chalemet as I’ve noted is excellent, but he is ably supported by a terrific cast – Ben Mendelssohn, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, all in very fine form. This film should be great.

But something seems missing. I suspect its the fault of a script that really fails to ignite, but also feel that the choice may be deliberate- this film could easily have descended into the formulaic theatrics of Braveheart or Gladiator or so many other stirring historical epics that sweep people away with spectacle and stirring words and OTT performances. This film is very low-key, a gloomy, almost melancholic take on material many will be familiar with, albeit more sincere adaptations of the bard. I would imagine its an attempt to be fresh and ‘new’ but it ironically works against it.

It’s a difficult thing, sometimes, having seen so many films, I’m certain it colours my perception of new films, possibly unfairly. Someone younger than twenty, say, coming to this film having seen few if any historical dramas might come away absolutely impressed and overwhelmed in a very positive way. A whole new generation might connect with this film in ways I cannot fathom, seeing things in Chalemet’s performance that reflects the modern world and how their generation sees it through this tale of a distant past. Something, for me, was missing, however, and I’ve been quite perturbed by it. There’s possibly nothing as frustrating as a good film that might have been truly great. Nothing quite as puzzling as trying to find what is missing and not being certain. As I’ve noted, I suspect its really a matter of the script and its focus on keeping things realistic and reducing the tendency for theatrics. I applaud the intent but wonder if it was ill-judged, but in any case, I am sure I will return to this film again, and that’s not something you can often say about Netflix Originals.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Say what you like about Tom Cruise, he knows how to fashion an audience-friendly blockbuster. Rogue Nation is a great summer movie, delivering everything anybody could possibly want from a Mission Impossible film. Even more remarkably, for a series nearly twenty years old now and into its fifth outing, it all somehow still seems fresh and exciting with some remarkable action sequences and a welcome return to spycraft and espionage. No small part of this is the presence of rising star Rebecca Ferguson as British Intelligence agent Ilsa Faust. Ferguson damn near steals the film from Cruise with a warm and affecting performance with a surprising physicality (I’ve seen her on tv before and this performance is a big surprise). No doubt many viewers will marvel at her performance and wonder where this new female action star has come from (it’s been a great summer for female action roles, with this, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow). Cruise has hinted at launching a sixth Mission Impossible film as early as next year and I hope thats an indication that it will be a follow-up to this one with Ferguson returning.

A follow-up would also be a welcome opportunity to bring back the Syndicate and its leader Solomon Lane (the name a riff on REH’s Solomon Kane, perhaps, or am I looking too far?) cooly played with real menace by Sean Harris. If Rogue Nation has any possible fault its the nagging feeling of anti-climax that hangs over a final confrontation that dispenses with the high-flying stunts and explosions, but that would be ably solved by it only being, in hindsight, a prelude to the next film. Who knows, as it is the finale might be considered a pleasant change from the usual OTT blockbuster theatrics, but I was left with a feeling there is more to be seen of Solomon Lane, in just the same way as the last few James Bond movies have had a more serial feel than the more individual Bond films of old.

rogue2So a great summer movie then, and one that has demonstrated the viability of its franchise just as much as Fury Road revitalised the Mad Max series (Fury Road is still my favourite film of the summer though). I’m not a great fan of endless sequels but I have to say, looking at the Mission Impossible series as a whole, its a pretty damn fine series of movies that delivers what its audience expects. Certainly it has been far more consistent than the Die Hard series. Tom Cruise seems to know what he’s doing with these Mission Impossible films, and I’m quite excited to see what he comes up with next.

Oh, and while I’m in gushing mode, the score by Joe Kraemer is fantastic action stuff too and no small part of the film’s success. Great film; roll on the blu-ray- that release may be the ideal time to get a Mission Impossible boxset to while away the Winter Blues.