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The Green Knight

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by Matt Anderson

published July 29, 2021

This yarn of knights in not-so-shining armor is not for everybody, but the taxing tale is tenacious enough to claw its way to an impactful conclusion.

The Christmas Game

At times, writer/director David Lowery (A Ghost Story) gets lost in his own artistry and clutters the narrative with distracting flair and flourish. Rather than playing up the fact this in indeed a tale of King Arthur’s Round Table (one translated by J.R.R. Tolkien some 70 years ago), Lowery at every turn seems determined to keep the material inaccessible rather than embracing the more popular attributes at his disposal, including Merlin and Camelot. Perhaps he considers it a noble approach.

For starters, a voiceover states this story isn’t about the king who pulled a sword out of a stone. That, obviously, is King Arthur. But it’s certainly not far removed either, as it should rightly be presumed the unnamed king on the throne is indeed Arthur (raspy-voiced Sean Harris, Mission: Impossible – Fallout) and the knight-in-waiting is his nephew, Gawain (Dev Patel, Hotel Mumbai), who goes on a quest to meet the Green Knight in his Green Chapel. Ultimately, this Arthurian fantasy that’s not about Arthur is about a man who would be king and the one choice he must make that endangers his ascension to the throne.

Scattered throughout the movie are title cards — displayed in varying versions of Olde English fonts — that break the narrative into chapters. The first declares this story a “chivalrous romance by Anonymous.” Sometimes the text is so ornately decorated, it’s hard to read and that matches up with the opening voiceover that is so hoarse and muffled, sometimes it’s hard to understand what’s being said.

In that throne room, with the classic — and aging — Knights of the Round Table reluctant to challenge the Green Knight, who storms in astride his imposing steed, it’s Gawain who, ignorant of all the implications, takes a stand against the Green Knight and beheads him. But this is medieval fantasy and the bodiless head speaks (a frequent event in this tale). Gawain is challenged to go to the Green Chapel one year hence — on Christmas Day — and bring the Green Knight’s axe with him so the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, The Witch)  can return the favor. If only the tree-like knight had said something clever — like, “It’s only a flesh wound” — to lighten the mood of the room.

Alas, while there’s a smidge of humor here and there, this one’s maybe too serious for its own good.

Meeting with St. Winifred

The Green Knight is an episodic adventure built around vignettes and interactions. It’s the kind of structure that allows for some moments to be baffling while others are ravishing and still others deeply eerie. It might not add up squarely, but the balance ekes out a positive sum.

No doubt all of it — the title cards, the vignettes and the pacing — are intended to evoke a timbre and a mood, something along the lines of cinematic poetry. Sometimes it works; sometimes it’s grating.

The early going is a little choppy as the characters are introduced and the stage is set. While the king and Gawain are a bit of a hard read at first, Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider) delivers two great performances. Her double-duty starts as an adorable commoner with short hair and an Irish lilt who’s in love with Gawain; but Vikander later reappears as a manipulative, elegantly dressed Lady of a castle who takes Gawain for a ride, so to speak.

Vikander’s duality feeds into a theme. Repeatedly, the line blurs between reality and fantasy; the timeline strays from the now and reaches out to alternate universes. People Gawain encounters appear in his dreams, or maybe it’s vice versa. It’s a sort of overheated fever dream.

During Gawain’s quest, thieves steal the axe and a protective green waistband woven by Gawain’s mother. But both are returned without explanation (and it’s worth noting the sword Gawain packed on his horse must’ve been too darn heavy to hand-carry during any sort of trek by foot, long or short, since it’s abandoned by both the thieves and the freshly horseless Gawain himself).

One of the creepiest and most effective segments involves Gawain’s encounter with a lovely redhead named Winifred (Erin Kellyman, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). Well, that’s an over-simplification. Her pretty red-haired head lies at the bottom of a nearby pond; Gawain retrieves it for her, but, as with so many events in this movie, it doesn’t lead to a happy ending with beauty restored.

A Too Quick Year

Rather than following the lead of Ritchie’s King Arthur, Lowery goes full Boorman without ever uttering the name “Excalibur” and parts feel akin to Taymor, particularly her adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus.

As Gawain’s journey forges ahead, the story shifts more and more from the literal to the allegorical. Vikander’s Lady hits a high note in that regard, as she seduces Gawain and talks of colors. There’s red, the color of lust. And there’s green, the color left in passion’s wake. Couple that with a mysterious red fox that accompanies Gawain for part of his travels and the movie hits a high note of Lowery’s artistic ambitions.

But it’s a high note that’s a little off key.

Given all the movie’s ambitions, the hope is something pushes the narrative forward to an equally inventive climax. Instead, The Green Knight maintains a fairly even keel that ends with Gawain assessing his choices and imagining how his life would play out were he to defy the Green Knight and escape the encounter with his head still firmly attached to his shoulders.

It’s the kind of conclusion that takes a while to sink in. But the more it’s considered, the more it makes an impact. That itself is a pretty neat movie trick.