Wednesday, August 4, 2021


As an Arthurian legend, the English lit staple Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a chivalric stress test. It takes the self-professed weakest Knight of the Round Table, nephew to the King himself, and puts him in a simple supernatural contest that eventually tests his every vice. Thus, it makes sense The Green Knight, David Lowery’s new adaptation of this tale, is down in the gnarled moral complications and ponderous deep sorcery. It authentically inhabits the central tension between the upward pull of virtue and the the downward thrust of temptation. Watching it, so unusually structured, sticking more or less to the progression of events, with some embellishment and changes to the specifics, as laid forth in the 14th century poem and steeped in the symbolism and priorities of its characters’ moral perspective, the film starts to feel like what a medieval poet might’ve conjured if they knew about cinema. Lowery, whose works are so often atmospheric and moody in this particular hazy way, from big stuff like Disney remake Pete’s Dragon (perhaps the finest of its ilk) to intimate high-concept experiments like the spectral time-bending A Ghost Story, visualizes a stately verdant and chilly world, where the medieval muck of mud and blood is already dotted with crumbling buildings and moss-covered brick between vast stretches of pale fields and dark forests. The characters speak in murmurs, intone grave importance, cast spells, recite prayers, and send each other off with symbols and speeches, ritual perhaps grown hollow with the passing years. Arthur, too, is near the end, speaking in a sickly whisper; Sean Harris plays him with teeth hurting and breath cracking. When he stands at the Round Table for a Christmas celebration we can see the respect the Knights and Ladies have for him, but can only triangulate his charisma and power as things of the distant past, already passing into legend.

We can also see how the young man at his side, Gawain (Dev Patel), theoretically in the early heights of vigor and power, can’t quite measure up. Yet. That’s why he takes the challenge put forth by the surprise visitor, the Green Knight, who asks to receive a blow from a weapon, a strike he will repay one year hence. Gawain, afraid of those consequences, beheads the guest, who promptly recapitates himself and reminds all listening of the deadline. A deal’s a deal. The rest of the story involves Gawain diligently following through, trudging north after this magical figure in order to remain a man of his word. Along the way, as Lowery adds details to his laborious journey, including encounters with bandits, giants, and spirits, among others including a seductive Lady and Lord (Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton), it’s easy to wonder if living up to his promise is worth the cost. All this trouble just to lose one’s head. Patel makes a marvelous Gawain, handsomely smoldering with a wet-haired puppy-eyed fear and hidden hard-nosed ambition; he can be courageous, but when he is, it’s almost despite himself. He anchors long wordless stretches of dread wandering and enigmatic fantasy in the margins. 

Between the moody visuals and sluggish pace, the film becomes a slowly unfurling episodic parable, or maybe a clammy waking nightmare. More than once, the camera drifts and supernatural events are presented ambiguously. Lowery imbues the proceedings with a sense that the line between reality and unreality, truth and legend, is thinner the closer we get to the climax. And even there, where he adds a poignant riff on the idea of a life flashing before his eyes, you might initially scratch your head about what, exactly, you’re seeing. But it makes a certain intuitive, emotional, moral sense. The movie is so plain about what’s on its mind, and presents violence and sexuality so plainly (that and its narrative tweaks ensure it won’t be classroom viewing), that the big questions it tackles are never lost in the mists of a film that’s both magisterial and base. Can an impulsive young coward grow into a great knight? Can one easily drawn into mistakes learn from them and become a good man? What, in the end, are we to make of Gawain's plight? The questions are left naggingly unresolved in ways new and old here. Besides, we Gawain scholars have been wrestling with it for 600 some years. Here’s a striking reason to return.

No comments:

Post a Comment