The Green Knight Review: In David Lowery’s newest picture, “The Green Knight,” the crowns are a highlight. Wearable halos, as worn by King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), remind your followers that you’re ruling by divine right. There’s also Lowery’s take on Arthurian tradition, which is more of a ring with room in the center for capering jesters, blackjack dealers, and other such nonsense. Be sure to keep an eye on this space.
Green Knight, played by Ralph Ineson (Dickie in “The Witch”), shows up at King Arthur’s palace without an invite (2015). Nothing but his voice, which sounds like a bass drum played on a piccolo, tells us that he is Ineson, whose features are covered in rough bark. It’s the steely, clattering hiss as Arthur’s soldiers draw their swords that stands out in a film full of noises.
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In a world of pagan rituals and Christian devotion, the Knight carries an axe and a branch of holly during Christmastime. As part of his Christmas wager, who will hit him with a single blade swing and then take a blow a year later? “Remember, it’s only a game,” Arthur says in a menacing whisper.
An old-fashioned typeface describes “The Green Knight” onscreen as “A Filmed Adaptation of Anonymous’ Chivalric Romance.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a lengthy English poem, was probably composed in the late fourteenth century, according to the work’s authorship information. J. R. R. Tolkien translates this as “as it is fixed and fettered / in narrative strong and courageous” (or “as it is fixed and fettered / in story brave and bold”).
Modern interpreters, including as W. S. Merwin and Simon Armitage, have found the alliterative language of the original as challenging as Arthur’s court. How much more difficult is it to portray, in a movie, even fragments of a legend that is thousands of years old?
One approach is to jolt the whole thing to life by snapping it awake. Thus, Essel (Alicia Vikander), Gawain’s low-born sweetheart, throws a pail of water over him while he’s asleep. “Are you a knight yet?” someone asks. It has not happened yet, he says. “You’d better get moving,” comes the response. Gawain the kid, it appears, is not the heroic hero of the poem.
Eventually, it is he who accepts the Green Knight’s challenge, decapitates him, and watches as his victim calmly collects the head and goes. He is then obligated to undertake an arduous adventure and endure many hazards along the way.
It’s an uncomfortable combination of the past and present. After fulfilling his Yuletide vow, Gawain seeks shelter in a lonely castle, where he is welcomed by the lord (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Vikander again, this time with greater elocution). We see less carnality in his room than we do on the page—”His breast was naked”—and the carnage is also less intense. But the poet’s meticulous descriptions of gutting and slaughtering are nowhere to be seen. (Lowery has been a vegan for many years.)
Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), a witch of various charms, and passing giants make brief appearances. Tolkien, one of the poem’s most famous editors, would have been startled to hear the phrase “You’ll be my lady, and I’ll be your man,” which implies that the culture of courtly love was familiar with Celine Dion’s work.
Despite this, Lowery’s “The Green Knight” has a strange charm, due to his obsession with cinema’s ability to measure and control time, as seen in “A Ghost Story” (2017). The moment in which Gawain, bound by robbers, lays on the woodland floor is breathtaking. Camera pans 360 degrees, finds skeleton, loops back, and eventually lands on him, suddenly alive and preparing to break free from his shackles.
When Gawain flinches at the axe, he rushes away to his shame. This fusion occurs again towards the conclusion of the movie. Our image of him going home, inheriting the throne, and witnessing his reign come to an end is reminiscent of a vision from the future. When the filmmaker takes his own way, he finds himself on the overgrown trail of a poet from a long time ago, whose name we will never know.
Pascual Sisto’s “John and the Hole” and “The Green Knight” share more than a passing resemblance, I’d think. Continuing to weave, Sisto continues the enchantment established by Lowery’s narrative, which is rife with peril.