The Green Knight

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Medieval Fantasy 

Availability: Prime Video

Plot: David Lowery wrote and directed this new adaptation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written around 1400. Simon Armitage in his wonderful 2007 translation of the poem suggests it is ‘not only a most brilliant example of Middle English poetry but one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature’. The poem is great fun to read, especially the Armitage translation. The film begins with brief scenes of Gawain, nephew to King Arthur, enjoying Christmas Eve pleasures of the flesh at a local brothel. In this interpretation, and to his mother’s clear frustration, Gawain is a wastrel, showing little sign of knightly prowess or virtue. The following day Garwain attends King Arthur’s Christmas gathering at Camelot, where unexpectedly he is invited to sit beside his uncle and Queen Guinevere. Festivities continue until they are interrupted by the arrival of a strange knight on horseback. It is a magical sight, and Merlin, the King’s advisor indicates caution. Otherworldly and of green hue, both rider and horse are monumental in size and presence. The forbidding Green Knight issues a challenge to the boldest and most courageous of Arthur’s men – to land a blow upon him. The only catch is that in one year hence he must come to the Green Chapel where he will receive the same blow in return from the Green Knight. There is silence at the round table. Then, at the King’s encouragement, Gawain takes up the challenge. With the help of Excalibur, the king’s magical sword, he decapitates the Green Knight with a single blow, thereby ostensibly putting an end to the matter. Except it’s not quite that easy. Just when everyone is celebrating Gawain’s success, the headless Green Knight arises and picks up his severed sconce – not a bad Christmas party trick. The head then speaks, reiterating the bargain that has been struck. They will meet in twelve months time when Gawain will be subjected to a comparable blow. The Green Knight then rides out of the castle gates, head in hand, and laughing maniacally. Time passes, and all too soon Gawain must make his way to the Green Chapel and receive the blow that awaits him. The film then takes us on dangerous and mystical travels as Gawain, somewhat reluctantly, journeys toward his fate.

Cast: The Green Knight has a stellar cast. Dev Patel (the unlikely hero of The Personal History of David Copperfield) is brilliant as he gives full expression to Gawain’s tumultuous experiences in search of the Green Chapel. Sarita Choudhury as his witchy mother, Morgan Le Fay, is terrific, along with Sean Harris as Arthur, and Kate Dickie as Guinevere. All three bring a sombre presence to the story. By contrast, Alicia Vikander is wonderfully versatile playing two lively characters, first Gawain’s lover who is paid for her services, and later the a noble lady who tempts Gawain while her husband is away hunting. Her existential soliloquy about the enduring  power of nature and the vulnerability of humankind is impressive. 

Filming and Setting: This is a beautiful film, with marvellous overhead shots, and spectacular visual effects. It’s easy to see the Weta Workshop tradecraft here, particularly in the presentation of the Green Knight. Resembling a tree, he could easily trace his cinematic genealogy to Tolkien’s Treebeard. Rich, dark and brooding, the film takes us into a medieval world of the supernatural, the devastating fields of battle, and the courtly riches found within castle walls. The filming is stunning from start to finish. 

Personal Comments: I have been waiting patiently to see this film since its completion earlier this year, and I’d have to say, it’s been worth the wait. No doubt there will be debate about the film’s fidelity to the original poem. The Green Knight is faithful to critical elements of the poem, but Lowery certainly borrows from other legends of the time, and his characterisation of Gawain is unequivocally more complex than the poem’s honourable knight. This makes for a very good film indeed – definitely true to the period, yet resonating with contemporary issues in compelling ways. It has layers of depth that will make you want to see it more than once. And if you want to read a really wonderful translation, Simon Armitage’s is one of the best. 

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