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‘The Green Knight’ a strange, sublime medieval fantasy

August 2, 2021
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I love being surprised at the movies. In this day of franchise fodder and omnipresent trailers, it can sometimes be tough to go into a film with little in the way of preconception. So when the opportunity arises, it can be really rewarding.

Writer-director David Lowery’s new film “The Green Knight” was just such a rewarding experience for me. It’s based on the 14th century chivalric romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” but beyond that and the knowledge that the wonderful Dev Patel stars, all I knew was what I half-remembered from having read the original text some 30 years ago. So I didn’t really know what was coming.

What I got was a sumptuous visual feast, an aesthetic wonder; it’s truly beautiful to look at. The central performance is exquisite, which is key – anything less than excellence from your lead and this film simply collapses under its own weight. That’s mostly because it is also one of the most actively weird mainstream releases I’ve seen in some time – and that’s a good thing.

It is a fantastic and strange tale of a man set upon a journey he doesn’t fully understand, victimized by his own hubris even as he ventures through a world that is steadily shifting around him. It is a story of the difference between responsibility and obligation, between honor and shame, all playing out through the eyes of a lone knight on a quest whose seeming purpose slowly crumbles with each step forward.

Gawain (Patel) is the nephew of the King. He wakes in a brothel on Christmas morning, alongside his regular lover Essel (Alicia Vickander, “The Glorias”), before rushing home to change before the Yuletide feast; he receives a rebuke from his mother (Sarita Choudhury, “After Yang”) for his trouble.

As Gawain sits at the feast, alongside the realm’s many knights, the King (Sean Harris, “The Banishing”) and Queen (Kate Dickie, “Wildfire”) invite him to sit with them. Meanwhile, Gawain’s mother and her associates perform some sort of ritual – one that leads to the sudden appearance at court of a mysterious supernatural being calling itself the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, “Gunpowder Milkshake”).

The Knight offers up a challenge – a game of sorts – wherein he invites any of the warriors present to step to him; any blow they land will be returned in kind in one year’s time. Amid nervous murmurs, Gawain accepts the challenge. The Knight in turn lowers his weapons and offers his exposed neck. A nervous and confused Gawain strikes, severing the Knight’s head from his body. Confusion becomes fear when the decapitated Knight rises, takes up his head and rides laughing into the night after shouting a reminder of the terms of the “game.”

A year passes. Gawain’s acclaim grows even as his anxiety about facing the knight increases. Finally, with much trepidation and only after an admonishment from the King, Gawain sets off to locate the Green Chapel, the place the Green Knight has declared will play host to the fulfillment of their game.

What follows is a surreal and hallucinatory journey across the countryside as Gawain makes his way toward his destiny. We see verdant forests and blasted landscapes as he encounters ghosts and brigands, animal guides and distant creatures that defy description. He is forced again and again to choose, the forking paths nevertheless steering him inexorably to the final confrontation that he fears so deeply, yet cannot flee. Such is his destiny, even as fear creeps in and he starts to doubt his ability to follow through on the terms of this magical, ineffable arrangement.

“The Green Knight” is a wildly compelling film, one that is happy to rely on a wildly-varied cinematographic sense of place and time; Lowery runs aesthetically amok – in a controlled fashion – utilizing color and light in idiosyncratic and engaging ways. From wide shots intended to illustrate how Gawain has been dwarfed by the world in which his quest take place to tightly tilted framing that allows for a closer understanding of the fear and doubt that plague him, the film is an ever-shifting visual marvel.

Lowery is also content to allow that aesthetic storytelling to carry the day; there are long stretches that are almost completely absent of dialogue. Often, Patel is the only person on screen for much or all of these stretches. It’s a choice that accentuates the loneliness – and what might prove to be the ultimate futility – of Gawain’s quest.

Again, it has been a while since we saw a mainstream film so unapologetically strange as this one. The comparison that leapt to mind – though the two are very different movies – is 2017’s “mother!” by Darren Aronofsky; both works are far more interested in allegorical exploration than traditional straightforward narrative filmmaking. Both films too bear an unsettling viscerality that is at times difficult to watch (and likely frustrating to some audiences).

Without a strong central performance, none of this could work. But Patel proves capable of holding the screen through sheer presence, allowing us to see his frustration and vulnerability and confusion play out in his isolated travels. Even when there are others present, Patel holds the audience’s eye – in those quiet moments, he shows us who Gawain truly is, rather than who he presents himself to be. It is a charismatic and mesmerizing presence, one that few actors could match and even fewer could potentially surpass.

It’s worth noting that there is some excellent work being done by the supporting cast. Vickander and Harris and Dickie, Choudhury and Ineson – all give wonderful performances. Likewise folks like Joel Edgerton and Erin Kellyman, whose efforts I won’t spoil, but rest assured are strong. Still, this movie rests upon the shoulders of Dev Patel, and he bears it aloft with emotive and visceral strength.

“The Green Knight” won’t be for everybody – I actually saw a few people walk out of my screening – but it will resonate with some to an impressive extent. It is beautiful to look at, compelling and chilling, bringing forth a sense of grounded fantasy that isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen before.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 02 August 2021 08:22

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