What is it to face your destiny? What is it to know for an extended period that an upcoming moment is the moment and more than that, but to know exactly when it is going to take place? These are amongst the lofty questions asked in David Lowery’s adaptation of the adaptation of the Arthurian story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” titled here simply “The Green Knight.”
Just as the title is stripped down, so are the names listed in the credits. King Arthur is listed as just “King” (Sean Harris); Queen Guinevere as “Queen” (Kate Dickie); and Gawain’s mother/Arthur’s sister, Morgause, as “Mother” (Sarita Choudhury). As with everything in the film, these are deliberate, conscious choices. Lowery’s effort is not focused on the pomp of the Round Table and lofty ideals of chivalry. No, this is a movie concerned with the life of one would-be knight, Gawain (Dev Patel), and his very human desires. It is, amongst other things (and as noted), about facing one’s destiny, about learning who one is, and accepting one’s humanity. It is about seeing the good and the bad in the world, about having one’s eyes opened.
So, we watch as Gawain, in the presence of his aunt and uncle, accepts the challenge of the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) one Christmas day to trade blows – Gawain getting to strike the Knight this first day and the Knight getting to return the favor the next Christmas. Patel is amazing as we see Gawain assessing the situation in front of the Knights of the Round Table and trying to make his mark on the world. We see the fear in his eyes as he accepts the challenge not quite knowing what it will bring. We see him witness things both great and terrible as he ventures out one year later to fulfill his promise to the Knight.
Through this all, Lowery offers up beautiful, captivating, imagery. There is more than one truly gorgeous tracking shot (Andrew Droz Palermo is the film’s director of photography) that follows Gawain as he is on his horse, slowly trudging towards what awaits. These are the very definition of the distinction (which is often missed) between something being deliberate and it being slow. In one of the shots, Gawain is traveling down a road and that’s essentially it. There are kids behind him shouting at one point (he doesn’t interact with them) and a shepherd heading in the other direction with his flock at another (no interaction here either), but it is largely focused on just Gawain travelling and it continues and is beautiful. There isn’t anything fancy or over the top going on with the image, there is nothing extraordinary taking place, it is just pure and simple and beautiful (not that it was necessarily simple to make it happen).
As with everything else in “The Green Knight,” the shot feels like something that exists for a very deliberate purpose… or purposes. It is the moment when Gawain sets off on his journey to meet the Knight and we are going off with him, it is the start of his trip towards his destiny, the start of his great adventure, the one which he hopes will make him worthy of a seat at the Round Table.
One of the beautiful things about the movie is that I can come up with a half-dozen different reasons for the moment to exist on screen as it does, reasons that work both in terms of the theme of the movie and the involvement of the audience and the setting of a time and place and world.
This happens over and over. When Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton appear later in the film as a Lord and Lady in a castle near the Knight’s chapel, we are again left to contemplate whether he will stray from his path and what he will find if he does. We are left to contemplate whether this Lord and lady have some sort of supernatural ability or if they’re playing a game with Gawain or if there is something else entirely going on. Once more the questions linger and the answers exist on many levels.
Everything about “The Green Knight” feels like a work from a filmmaker at the height of his powers. This is a movie that isn’t just incredible to look at, but which feels special. Patel is, once more, completely and totally captivating. And this version of the story, which exists without a lot of extraneous fluff has the sense of a thing that will be talked about for years to come. It is wondrous and wonderful. This is a movie calling not just for praise but for deep and long consideration, a mapping out of themes and ideas and how the camera work and color palette and nods and glances and everything else works into it including the mesmerizing score from Daniel Hart. Such examination goes beyond what we have time for here in a review and ought to only be embarked upon following repeat viewings. Suffice to say that I will be watching the movie again when the opportunity arises.
photo credit: A24