Has there ever been a more divisive movie than The Green Knight?
Unceremoniously pulled from its intended theatrical release and plonked onto Amazon Prime, it’s interesting to look at the audience reviews, which feature a plethora of five star ratings and an equal number of one stars. The latter break down into three distinct groups. Many people decry that the film is simply ‘too dark’ for their modest screens – and I have to agree that, if ever a film demanded to be seen at the cinema, this is the one.
More worrying are the blatantly racist comments about the casting of Asian actor, Dev Patel, as the ‘quintessential British hero’ Sir Gawain. But this is a work of chivalric fiction, written anonymously in the fourteenth century. It’s not as if director, David Lowery set out to do a biopic about Winston Churchill. Gawain could be played by any actor and Patel is terrific in the role.
The third strand is the most baffling: people complaining that, over the film’s two hour duration, ‘absolutely nothing happens’ – even though most of them casually add that they stopped watching after twenty minutes or so! The truth is that a lot happens in this film, even if the story unfolds at a leisurely pace, and what happens is fascinating stuff, open to a viewer’s own interpretation.
Our hero is the nephew of The King (Sean Harris), and we’re first introduced to Gawain as a slovenly layabout, happily carrying on with commoner Essel (Alicia Vikander), but, despite her entreaties, showing no inclination to marry her. One Christmas Eve, Gawain is summoned to a feast at the castle where he is invited to sit at his Uncle’s side. At this point, there’s an unexpected visitor, the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). He rides in and issues a playful challenge. If any man will face him in combat, he will offer them the chance to strike him with a sword. But in one year’s time, that man must present himself to the Green Knight and receive the same treatment in return. Gawain recklessly steps up to the plate and, no doubt fuelled by a little too much alcohol, lops off the knight’s head, thinking perhaps that it will end there – whereupon the ancient warrior picks up his severed bonce and gleefully rides away.
One year later, as Christmas looms, Gawain is understandably nervous. After some procrastination, and girdled by a protective belt fashioned by his witchlike mother (Sarita Chowdhury), he sets off for the Green Chapel to meet with his adversary.
A classic quest dutifully unfolds. On his travels, Gawain meets with a duplicitous young thief (Barry Keoghan), a talking fox, and a mysterious lord (Joel Edgerton). He also has a close encounter with the lord’s wife – also played by Vikander – who tests Gawain’s mettle as a ‘gallant knight’…
The Green Knight is a splendid film. I love the gorgeous cinematography, its grubby depiction of a medieval world. I enjoy the various themes that criss-cross throughout the story. Here is a profound meditation on death, on coming of age, on the need for a brash young man to find his maturity. It explores the constant struggle between pagan beliefs and the rising power of Christianity (note how the Green Knight is depicted as the Green Man of mythology). I love the strange hallucinogenic interlude where Gawain encounters a race of giants and I marvel at the fact that, hours after the credits have rolled, we’re still discussing the meaning of some of the film’s weirder moments.
Of course this won’t be for everyone. And of course, some will see it as pretentious. But in many ways, The Green Knight is one of the most original films I’ve ever seen. It should have had its proper chance to dazzle us on the big screen.