It’s Not Easy Being Gawain – THE GREEN KNIGHT

Review by William J. Hammon,

A couple years ago I got to briefly meet director David Lowery at a Q&A following his film, The Old Man & the Gun. As much as I enjoyed the film, I was captivated by Lowery’s reverence for Robert Redford as an actor, and for the Western film genre that he was both deconstructing and granting homage. He’s a perfectionist who understands the balance between making sure you have cool visuals and the need for believable characters and story. I made a mental note at the time to see whatever he put out next, because he had the makings of an auteur, someone who really “got” it when it comes to making movies.

That new outing is The Green Knight, which is about as far as a thematic departure from Old Man as you can get, eschewing a grounded character study couched in the Western style for an epic Arthurian fantasy. But the quality and attention to detail is no less present, nor is the commitment to ensuring the whole enterprise is driven by a lead character that feels real and a story that makes sense. The scale may be much grander this time around, but the little things that matter most are still front and center.

Adapted from one of the classic tales of Camelot, this somewhat grimy retelling features Dev Patel as Gawain, son of Morgan le Fay and nephew to King Arthur. Eager for the glory and honor that comes with being a Knight of the Round Table, Patel’s portrayal is an eternal struggle between his ambitions and his sense of right and wrong. He wishes to be held in high regard as a hero, but would rather spend his time in a Falstaff-like state of indulging in alcohol and prostitutes. This is somewhat ironic in a meta sense, as Joel Edgerton, who played Falstaff in The King a few years back, also appears in this film playing a more toned-down version of the same character. In essence, this version of Gawain is an analog for people we’ve all dealt with at one point or another, that being the person who wants the prestige and privilege of an accomplishment or title, but without doing the actual work necessary to make it happen. It’s someone who’d rather be given a title than make their own name. This can manifest in many forms, from unproductive team members on a group project, to, say, a politician who demands people praise him for solving a global pandemic while actively hampering the progress of those actually trying to keep people from dying. Could be anyone, I’m just spitballing here.

On Christmas day, after a morning tryst with his lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander), Gawain attends a feast at Camelot, with Arthur (Sean Harris) inviting him to sit beside him. Meanwhile, his witchy mother (Sarita Choudhury) casts a spell in secret to summon a supernatural being as a test for Arthur’s literal inner circle. The Green Knight appears (played by Ralph Ineson), and proposes a “game.” If one of Arthur’s knights can land a single blow against him in combat, that knight will win the Green Knight’s magical axe. The condition is that no matter what blow is landed, in one year’s time, that knight must in good faith meet him at the Green Chapel and accept the same hit in kind.

Sensing his time has come at last, Gawain jumps forward, with Arthur lending him Excalibur for the task. However, rather than have a full fight in the hall, the Green Knight simply kneels and offers his exposed neck. Taking the bait, Gawain beheads him. This isn’t a spoiler, as it’s in the trailer, so don’t come at me with complaints. The Green Knight then rises, collects his head, and reminds Gawain of the debt now owed, leaving casually with head under arm.

Let’s break down this inciting event for a second, because it’s constructed so beautifully. First off, the design on the Green Knight is amazing. I’m sure some bullshit like Cruella is going to campaign hard for a Makeup & Hairstyling Oscar, but it pales in comparison to something like this. The ostensible antagonist of this film has an immaculate visage, as if carved out of wood, with branches and vines coiling around to substitute for hair like a woodland Medusa. I’m almost certain this is a practical effect rather than CGI in most places as well, adding to the degree of difficulty.

Second, the production design is off the charts as well. Lowery makes fantastic use of the space in the scene, and perhaps unintentionally corrects one of the weirdest tropes in film. Be they set in medieval or modern times, a ton of movies have large areas just filled to the brim with candles (or lamps), to the point that if the scene were real, they’d be at minimum impractical and more likely outright dangerous. Here, the approach is more minimalist. Yes, there are torches and candles, but in an array and amount that not only makes sense, but helps to make the lighting seem realistic, complemented by a spotlight from the Sun’s beams through a singular stone window for extra dramatic effect. It’s not overpowering, and yet there’s enough lighting to see what’s going on, a problem that’s been prevalent in a LOT of effects-driven films over the last few years.

Third, and most importantly, the implications of this scene speak volumes with very little dialogue. Once Gawain accepts the challenge, the Green Knight is basically silent, allowing Gawain to figuratively dig his own preemptive grave by taking the most aggressive route to win the “game.” Even Arthur gives Gawain full warning to not take things too seriously, as it’s Christmas, and this is likely meant to be a fun test of cunning. Yes, in medieval times through at least the Renaissance, the word “game” did have something of a double meaning when it came to combat. That’s why you’ll see in the works of Shakespeare that the rare stage direction for a sword fight often includes the phrase, “They play,” but this is not one of those times.

Arthur is keen to remind Gawain of this, but as this film will illustrate time and again, Gawain is often his own worst enemy, his pride and ambitious desire often substituting for common sense. Again, he wants the glory, but he lacks the proverbial guts. From a pure story perspective, Gawain could have just punched the Green Knight in the face, or jabbed him with the hilt of the sword if weapons were required. But instead, even when the truth is quietly screaming in his face that it’s a trap (the Green Knight even begins by laying down his own weapon, daring Gawain to harm an unarmed opponent), he thinks a purely performative show of strength will equate to actual strength, even though it’s ultimately the most dishonorable option he could have picked. He chose to win the quick and easy way rather than the thoughtful, reasoned way, never considering the consequences if his guess is wrong, and the entirety of the film’s events from here on out are a direct result of this display of hubris. It’s just tremendous.

After a very quick year spent basking in the fleeting glow of fame without ever doing anything with it (and visibly growing weary of keeping up appearances), it’s time for Gawain to take up his quest and meet the Green Knight again. His mother, distraught earlier when she learns it was Gawain and that he took the most extreme route in the challenge, gives him a girdle said to protect him from all harm whenever he wears it. With weapons in hand (he curiously packs the axe away, seemingly thinking that if he returns it without use, it’ll settle their bargain) and clad in the finest armor, he mounts his steed and sets out on his grand adventure.

But of course, things are never as easy as they seem. He encounters a scavenger on a corpse-riddled battlefield (Barry Keoghan) and asks for directions, offering a single coin as thanks, but only after goaded by the youth to pay for services rendered. This leads to him getting ambushed in the woods later by this same man and his companions for lying and essentially being cheap, and they rob him and leave him for dead. He meets the ghost of a girl beheaded for refusing a sexual advance (Erin Kellyman, aka Enfys Nest from Solo), and before he accepts her request to find her missing skull, he himself infers sexual desire that is nowhere in the girl’s actions. Near his destination, he meets a nameless Lord and hunter (Edgerton) and his Lady (also Alicia Vikander), who test his integrity in different ways, the former by having him make a promise he can’t keep, and the latter by trying to seduce him. He is accompanied at times by a photorealistic CGI fox that eventually talks and tries to get him to turn back to save his own life, which could either be interpreted as a pragmatic stance or a temptation towards his baser instincts. Either way, Gawain dismisses his only companion for having the audacity to question his choices.

To read the rest of this review, click here.

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