Director David Lowery revises 14th century Arthurian poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” for a modern context. Dev Patel plays lead character Sir Gawain, who must go on an absurd quest in the name of honour to find the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) to be beheaded, and thus fulfil a bargain made one year earlier. Alex Watkin shares his thoughts.
This A24 financed epic fantasy is perhaps one of the more curious films of its scale this year. The fantasy genre is undoubtedly one of the hardest to do well, especially if you’re trying to appeal beyond those who consider themselves fantasy fans. Director David Lowery pulls off this feat by routing The Green Knight first and foremost in the character arch of Sir Gawain.
The character feels unfulfilled, as if he must do something to bring himself honour, dignity and respect in a world obsessed with reputation. This leads to Sir Gawain feeling compelled to fulfil the Green Knight’s bargain even with it meaning his death. This conflict between conforming to the expectations of the world and one’s own happiness is explored with real intelligence and nuance. The film rightly provides no simple answers.
The fantasy/ medieval setting has never appealed to me on its own, but here it feels completely valid beyond simply an aesthetic sensibility. It allows Lowry to dial the thematic exploration of reputation and honour up to eleven. A similar story could’ve been told in a modern setting but not with the same theatricality and monumentality.
the film’s sensory atmosphere lends itself well to passive viewing
That being said, the film could have easily become too melodramatic and too indulgent in its flowery language. Instead it still manages to present its story economically. Everything is mostly communicated through visual language and scenes are allowed to play out to their full potential. Such a schema will result in moments of vagueness, where certain scenes may seem slightly superfluous to some viewers, but on reflection I’m struggling to think of anything that feels out of place.
The film’s lack of spoon-feeding will mean there is more to appreciate and see when watching again. Although equally, I think, the film’s sensory atmosphere lends itself well to passive viewing. For those that enjoy this kind of setting this film’s ambience is begging for multiple repeat viewings of this kind.
A significant component of the film’s atmosphere is the score, with almost its entirety being accompanied by music. The score in The Green Knight is without question not just a cheap trick to control the audience’s emotions. Instead, similarly to Christopher Nolan’s use of music, The Green Knight most frequently uses score to dictate tempo and enhance atmosphere.
The cinematography too is highly designed. Everything is extensively colour graded and for the most part the film is captivating to look at. At times, its stylised look can result in a lack of reality as every shot is almost too perfect. This may mislead some to think the film is style over substance.
what Patel provides has so many more shades of emotions
However, with the film’s final movement it’s hard to see that criticism holding much water. The film at first seems to choose the predictable ending that you’d expect, but instead of then promptly rolling the credits the film continues with another twist to the story. This section is probably the best of the film. Dev Patel’s performance radiates a deep turmoil. Regret on its own would be easy to perform, but what Patel provides has so many more shades of emotions. In this final section, he communicates all this through body language and facial expressions- it is genuinely encapsulating.
The film’s actual eventual ending has some challenging thematic repercussions that are in sharp contrast to the comfortable expectations. It will be natural for some to reject it entirely, and perhaps that’s the point, but even that seems too simple as the ending is not one note whichever way you look at it. The only definitive thing that can be said about the ending is that it infuses The Green Knight with simmering thought provoking vitality that will leave you thinking about it long after you leave the cinema.
In-article images courtesy of @thegreenknight via @instagram.com. No changes were made to these images.
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