- Release Date: 27/08/2021
- Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Erin Kellyman, Sean Harris
- Director: David Lowery
This review will contain major spoilers as it is as much an effort to appreciate what I loved about the film as it is to decipher the film and the character of Gawain.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, a 14th Century Middle English chivalric romance is the basis for David Lowery’s “The Green Knight”. Lowery had previously directed the quirky and engaging “The Old Man and the Gun” starring Robert Redford. “The Green Knight” is everything that “The Old Man and the Gun” wasn’t and marks one of the most pronounced departures for a director from a certain manner of filmmaking. While this film still retains Lowery’s penchant for putting to screen a story and visuals that are engaging even when they are unremarkable and mundane, it does dwell into the thematic, metaphysical, and finally the unknown to complete the skewed arc of its protagonist. This is all in line with the source material but the director does introduce elements and logistics from time to time that may not have been part of the original text but serves the story well in its renditioning for a generation and era that violently questions and refuses to believe without proof.
Gawain (Dev Patel) is King Arthur’s nephew. He spends most of his time either getting drunk or in the company of women of questionable virtue. His favorite is Essel (Alicia Vikander). He spends the night before Christmas in her company and later gives her a ride into the city on his horse. Gawain’s mother knows of his son’s philandering but still loves him as any mother would. She hopes that someday he will take his righteous place by the side of King Arthur who is without an heir. She willfully decides to change things for Gawain this Christmas. As he joins an illustrious company of Knights led by the King of Kings, Arthur, his mother who apparently practices magic immerses herself in a ceremony that effectively invokes a mythical creature knows only as the Green Knight.
The Green Knight reaches’ Arthur’s lair and challenges any Knight in the gathering to engage with him in a friendly game. The rules of the game are simple. The Knight has to land a single blow on the Green Knight and he would let him have his ax for one year. At the completion of one year, the knight must travel to the mystical Green Chapel where the Green Knight will wait for him. The Knight will then have to take a blow similar to what he had landed on the Green Knight and return his ax. Shocked at the otherworldly appearance of the Green Knight, most in attendance remained immobile. Arthur chooses Gawain to reciprocate the challenge of the Green Knight. Gawain who isn’t even a knight and didn’t have any chivalrous tale to narrate up till then borrows Arthur’s sword and approaches the Green Knight for the duel. The Green Knight surprisingly doesn’t offer any challenge and submits to Gawain who urges him to fight. When the Green Knight doesn’t, Gawain, in a fit of rage, chops of his head. Before Gawain could celebrate his victory and calm his surging adrenalin, the Green Knight re-animates, picks up his severed head, reminds Gawain of the arrangement, and leaves Arthur’s lair laughing hysterically.
Gawain as well as Arthur knows that he has to return the ax left behind by the Knight to the Green Chapel and take a slash at his throat but they choose to forget about it until the time is ripe. A year passes and the time comes for Gawain to honor the arrangement. He tries to talk his way out of the arrangement but is forced by Arthur to undertake the journey. Unwilling and scared, Gawain begins his quest and on his way meets three separate challenges in the form of three human encounters that would test the existence of three basic qualities that make a man a knight.
For anyone expecting a straightforward adventure story with action and thrills will be sorely disappointed by this film as it is neither. The story and treatment here are more surreal and cerebral than physical. Almost the entire story is viewed from the perspective of Gawain and he proves to be a questionable narrator. On his journey, he first encounters a young boy who is looting a battlefield that is littered with dead bodies. The boy asks for his help and Gawain gives him a single coin. He doesn’t correct the boy when he assumes that Gawain is a knight. Moments later, When Gawain is overpowered by this boy and his two cronies with the intention to rob and kill, Gawain tells him that he is not a Knight. Evidently, Gawain uses the entitlement of knighthood to suit his needs and mojo when he has done nothing to deserve it. The gang leaves Gawain tied in the forest and it is at this juncture that he imagines himself as a corpse before cutting through his binds using his sword that was inexplicably left behind by his aggressors.
He next meets a girl known only as Winifred (Erin Kellyman) when he walks into her home. Winifred asks him to bring back her severed head from underneath a pond adjacent to her home. Gawain asks her what she would give him in return for the favor. This infuriates Winifred who questions the sense and justification of asking favor in return for a favor. Gawain returns the head to the body on the bed and moments later finds the ax of the Green Knight in Winifred’s home that was earlier stolen by the thieves.
Next, Gawain ends up in the house of a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and a Lady (Alicia Vikander). He is taken aback by the fact that the Lady looks exactly like his favorite Essel and she makes advances on him from the very first day of his arrival at the castle. A time comes when Gawain has to choose between doing what his heart desires and what is right and he willfully submits to his urges. It is at this juncture that the Lady tells him that he is no knight.
Through these three challenges and Gawain’s own version of it, it is made clear that at every juncture in his journey he failed to do what a knight would have done by impulse and inherent righteousness. He narrates to have seen giants and heard a fox talk and dissuade him from going to the Green Chapel as it would mean the end of him. This is again something that is questionable as he might have been under the influence of poisonous mushrooms when he saw the giants in his delusion and later imagined his companion, the fox dissuading him from going to the green chapel when that is what his heart actually desired.
The film nears its end with Gawain bringing the Green Knight his ax but refusing to take his blow. We see him return to his kingdom after the Green Knight doesn’t pursue him. We see him live an entire life that is based on lies. We see him being christened as a Knight by Arthur before his death. We see him impregnate Essel and then take away the child as she was no woman of virtue. We see him get married to a royal princess. We see him lose his son and get old. We see his subjects hate him. We see his castle under siege and we finally see his head topple as he sits old, wrinkled, and alone on his throne.
It is at this juncture that we realize that these were just visions that the Green Knight had granted Gawain who now knew how his life would span out if he chose to take a certain path. He chooses to lose his head instead of drudging through a life of suffering and emotional torment. He takes off the safety that his mother had provided him and one that had kept him alive and disarmed anyone who wanted to harm him. The Green Knight senses a feeling of virtue and goodness making its way through Gawain and appreciates the course of action that he chooses to take. He even calls him a knight but then politely tells him that his head is going to topple.
The Green Knight is a strange film that enveloped my senses with its surreal and psychedelic storytelling. I loved how the film was shot and the leisurely editing of it that gave it a moody albeit effective pacing. I loved how they used hand-held camera movements and yet were able to frame sequences that appealed to a higher sense of visual beauty, geometry, and aesthetics. I loved every performance of the film as none of it felt pretentious. The performances were in strong keeping with the mood, feeling, and otherworldly narrative of the film. The characters reacted to certain situations in ways that were in line with the story and lore of the film and not so much about realism and believability. I feel that this film will be one of the most polarizing films of recent times. While it will be lapped up by many for its astute storytelling, performances, visuals, and editing, it will also be loathed by many others for its ambiguity, lack of closure, and a disconnect with rationality, realism, and believability.