Director – David Lowery – 2021 – UK – Cert. 15 – 130m
A retelling of the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Arthurian mythology – out in cinemas on Friday, September 24th
This immediately sets out its stall with a woman leading a horse out of a courtyard and Gawain (Dev Patel) being awoken by a bucket of water on Christmas Day thrown by his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) in a building which may or may not be a brothel. He attends mass with her, then goes back to his mother (Sarita Choudhury) who is going to pass attending the King’s court this Christmas Day.
The colour blind casting here has the good sense to cast Gawain and his mother in a similar ethnicity, which is certainly consistent and avoids the problems it produced in The Personal History Of David Copperfield (Armando Ianucci, 2019).
Whatever expectations of straightforward narrative the unwary moviegoer might have had from watching the trailer have been dashed. Much of the rest of the film is similarly oblique. While there is a basic underlying structure of a quest, what happens in the course of that quest comprises serial events and incidents en route that seemingly bear scant relation to the quest itself. (I am reminded of the similarly meandering road movie Radio On, Chris Petit, 1979).
It’s an adaptation of a 14th Century, Middle English chivalric romance written in poetic form. Gawain’s mother (his aunt, Morgan Le Fey in the original) is a witch; witchcraft, magic and enchantment all play a part in what follows. There are also fox spirits and seduction.
So, the basic quest plot, which kicks in on Christmas Day at the King’s court about five minutes into the film, concerns the arrival of the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) who issues a challenge. A man must land a blow upon him, scratching his flesh or removing his head, on the condition that if this does not kill the Green Knight, then a year hence his opponent must journey several days North to the Green Chapel where the Green Knight will return the blow.
The enthusiastic Gawain takes up the challenge and beheads the Green Knight. Who promptly picks up his head and rides off, expecting to be visited by Gawain in a year’s time. So about a week before the following Christmas, Gawain sets out to find the Green Chapel and undergoes a series of bizarre adventures before finally keeping his appointment.
Among these adventures are being tricked and robbed by a highwayman (Barry Keoghan) and his gang, an encounter with giants, a meeting with the pure St Winifred (Erin Kellyman), travelling alongside a talking fox, and a sojourn at the house of a Lord (Joel Edgeton) and his Lady (Vikander again) which is situated near the Green Chapel for which Gawain is searching. In this house, whose occupants also include an old lady with a blindfold, the Lord hunts game all day while the Lady attempts to seduce Gawain.
It’s difficult to know for whom Lowery is making this film. Clearly for himself (nothing wrong with that, to start with), it appears to be a film he wanted to make, and it’s likely to be embraced by academics and students of medieval literature already familiar with the text. There’s a scene straight out of The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1974) where a briefly possessed Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) speaks in a strange, otherworldly male voice. The talking fox recalls Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009). Parts of the film have a definite WTF quality, while others benefit from the refusal to follow movie narrative conventions, constantly throwing up unexpected elements that take you pleasantly (or unpleasantly) by surprise.
It’s a very handsome-looking affair, from the round table of King Arthur (Sean Harris) through to the effects make-up of the Green Knight and a series of often claustrophobic woodland exteriors and building interiors on which great care has been lavished in selection, art direction and shooting. Visually and aurally, the experience is constantly breathtaking. Yet for those unfamiliar with the source text, or the conventions of 14th Century, it can often be baffling. Reading up on the source material before viewing is likely to pay considerable dividends.
One of the strangest Christmas movies ever made.
The Green Knight is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 24th.