Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Mythology is a joy in its endless, spiraling ambiguities. These tales are as much mirrors as they are vehicles by which we explore the mysteries of mortality and contemplate the contradictions between our earthly and celestial bodies. David Lowery’s The Green Knight is painfully aware of its indebtedness to the cosmic and terrestrial dichotomy in which humans function, sometimes stumbling on its own awestruck grandiosity. This quality is also exactly what makes The Green Knight his most compelling work since A Ghost Story. Drunk on the possibilities of folklore David Lowery creates a distinctly adult fable from one of the most classic works of 17th century literature, imbuing it with a level of profundity and mystery that was only subtextual in the original poem, rendering a scholarly and difficult document much sexier and dangerous than it had been before. By no means a masterpiece, this is nonetheless an extremely worthwhile film for all those interested in a romantic, existential adventure that just so happens to feature one of the most handsome actors working today. Alas, I digress.
The film begins with Sir Gaiwan (Dev Patel) stumbling out of a brothel after spending an evening with his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). He then makes his way to the King’s (Sean Harris) court for a yuletide celebration. And this is one of the first instances in which Lowery is playful with the original tale. The poem concerns itself with King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable, however, in this version he is noticeably nameless, though it is Gaiwan who we learn early on must make a name for himself. By deemphasizing the original text’s primary conflict of Morgan le Fey testing the Knights of the Round Table, and as a byproduct Arthur’s ruling, the film is more of a character study of the cowardly and fearful Sir Gaiwan than a typical story of chivalry. This is not about a man who finds “chivalry” in the classical tradition of chastity and duty, but rather he learns how to die, that the only exchange he makes with death is that he grants his life to it.
Once at the medieval Christmas party the festivities begin with the entrance of an unexpected visitor, the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) who plays a “game” with Sir Gawain that will spur the untested knight to adventure. This opening scene is brilliantly choreographed in pacing and tone, the Green Knight has captivated literary audiences for so long because of his ability to be simultaneously charming, cunning and malicious all in a single breath and Ineson’s portrayal, though largely due to the incredible costume design, is striking and visually memorable, not a figure cinematic history is likely to forget anytime soon. The score, though effective in its use of modern sonic proclivities and ancient chants, is often overwhelming much of the dialogue and action. The overbearing inclusion of these sounds often undermine the strength of the direction rather than enhance it.
The journey itself is a beautifully satisfying one, though it struggles with pacing at points, there are many memorable visuals to be found in the stunning Irish landscape. And though I didn’t care much for a certain CGI fox in the film, the special effects are otherwise almost entirely spectacular. In spite of some of the laborious plotting, the voyage is ultimately made meaningful by Lowery’s insistence in the raw power of folklore and legends. The film risks reading like fan fiction in order to enact some radical changes to the original story, and one not need be familiar with the tale to enjoy them, they only need to have the patience with Lowery and his direction to trust that he’s taking them somewhere worthwhile, and given the divisive nature of the ending whether or not this was all worth it is sure to be a debate for a long time to come.
Though Lowery chooses a varied array of projects to helm, they come back to a single theme: man’s reluctance to die. His films capture men circling life’s drain, in the case of Sir Gawain, much more rapidly than others. Though his visual palette is obvious and borderline obtrusive, one cannot say that it’s thoughtless, Lowery believes in each element of the cinema to evoke wonder. He just might need to get out of his own way if he is intent on creating a masterpiece. For now we have a happily profound film full of deep caverns and vast valleys to explore.