Saturday, 4 December 2021

The Green Knight (2021) - Movie Review

I’m a bit apprehensive about looking at this one. Partly because the last time I reviewed a David Lowery film on here, things didn’t exactly go to plan, but also because, since I still have The Last Duel firmly implanted in my head, I get the feeling I won’t be as open to the more romanticised version of the knights of legend as I might’ve been otherwise. At least, that was my thought process going into this. Having now seen it, it actually fits in surprisingly well alongside that kind of grand deconstruction of the trope, only with a slightly different bent to it. Where The Last Duel was about the grim reality behind those who so readily claimed to live under those ideals, The Green Knight contrasts that reality with the prospect of becoming a legend that embodies those ideals.

Lowery’s approach to adapting the original Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain has a foot firmly in both rustic aesthetic and mythical tones; kind of like if VVitch-era Robert Eggers made a medieval fantasy film. The set design, costuming, and much of the colour palette exist to further the authenticity of the era, which is frequently interjected with the magical and the eternal, namely through the presence of the titular Knight as well as Sarita Choudhury’s Morgan le Fay.  It has the framing of this epic and legendary quest, showing Dev Patel’s Gawain and his journey to make good on a pact he made with the Green Knight… which could ultimately lead to his death.

The natural world plays a large role in the narrative, essentially having Gawain serve as the patron for his contemporaneous civilisation, and the Green Knight as the avatar of… well, the Green. The way it intermingles the heroic hubris behind this kind of chivalric tale with the more ingrained hubris of man thinking it can conquer nature is quite intriguing, and leads to the film’s grandest visual moments. The inclusion of witchcraft as part of that equation adds to the effect, managing to mirror both VVitch and even Last Duel in how it turns feminine nature into part of the main conflict. Femininity is classically considered to be where life spawns from, after all.

But more so than its environmental tones, it’s the film’s take on the notion of becoming legend that I find most interesting. “No shit”, say the readers who have seen me even mention this concept in past reviews, but this takes things in a different direction than I’ve looked at previously. Throughout his journey, Gawain finds himself losing everything he has: His boons, his companions, his protection against his own fate. It fits with the archetypal hero’s journey, but it digs deeper when it looks at what else he’d have to give up in order to go down into legend, much like the Knights at King Arthur’s table. Those he loves, those he looks up to, all the wonders that mortal life has yet to offer him; to get what he truly wants, he would have to give it all up.

But in that quandary lies the real power of becoming legend. Man is inherently flawed. A noble life that lasts for too long will inevitably crack. A hero that is given more time to act will eventually make mistakes, which can end up tarnishing the worth of the good they did previously. Kind of like 2016 and 2017 in the world of pop culture, where some icons died before their time and others proved themselves unworthy of the fealty they engendered.

But a legend, a myth, a story that is told through the ages… that is something much stronger. A legend is infallible. A myth only exists for as long as it is repeated, and in that repetition, the storytellers are likely to leave out some of the… uncomfortable aspects. It is that very reason why medieval knights exist in this weird stasis in the popular consciousness. But then again, that element of them that continues to exist isn’t the historical one. It isn’t the story of flesh-and-blood soldiers who proclaimed their own greatness solely for their own benefit, while committing acts far worse than any ‘dragons’ they supposedly came across. No, the aspect of that lore that exists is the ideal of the knight. The brave hero that fights for what is good and righteous, who does the right thing and inspires others to do the same, and who creates a code worth living by.

Gawain, the man who wishes to be a knight, is flawed. He deceives others just as often as he deceives himself, and for as much as he admires the strength and courage of the knights he grew up with, he does not possess such qualities himself. But in carrying forward with this act, in playing his part in the Green Knight’s game, he could outlive those flaws as a name synonymous with the courage he sought to represent. He made a vow, and if he lives up to it, he could become legend.

Regardless, even if my readers don’t find any of this as fascinating as I do, the film itself is still quite good. The acting is solid, the imagery is beautiful and haunting in equal parts, the soundtrack from violinist Daniel Hart is just gorgeous, and it manages to both deconstruct the grandiosity attached to Arthurian stories and highlight why such tales continue to inspire people to this day. If nothing else, I can at least say that this works better than A Ghost Story, as this manages to be both artful and entertaining to watch.

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