How to Twist an Arthurian Epic

A Review of A24’s The Green Knight.

Sir Gawain is an underrated Knight. He’s not as popular as the queen-snatching Lancelot or the grail-spotting Galahad, but he was always closest to King Arthur in both affinity and blood. In that respect, he was the most vital Round Table mainstay – that, considering the King’s tense sibling dynamic with Gawain’s sorceress mother. Such was their uncle-nephew bond in Camelot canon, it warranted Gawain’s own storyline: the chivalric romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Written anonymously in the 14th century, the piece was a mish-mash of alliteration and rhyme that spans two Christmases. A mysterious figure, known as The Green Knight, arrives at a royal celebration with an unusual challenge. Whoever could strike him with his axe gets to keep the axe, under the condition that he may return the blow one year and one day later. It’s Gawain who accepts the challenge and decapitates the Green Knight with one blow. To everyone’s surprise, the dismembered head starts speaking and reiterates the terms. As the given time frame lapses, Gawain reluctantly begins to search for the Green Knight’s domain, known as the Green Chapel, to complete the challenge. Motives vary per translation, but the general takeaway remains. It’s a test of his honor and authenticity as a Knight.

Film adaptations had been done before, none of which received critical acclaim. Stephen Weeks’ second attempt, “The Sword of the Valiant” (1984), was particularly panned for its dull deviations and Miles O’Keefe’s wooden portrayal. It would take 34 years for another version to be developed, with David Lowery at the helm. The breakthrough filmmaker was previously lauded for his take on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (2016) and the supernatural drama A Ghost Story (2017). This adaptation is Lowery’s second film under the distributorship of A24. For this version, he took inspiration from 1988’s Willow.

It’s the most aberrant retelling yet. Much has been discussed about the “non-traditional” choice of Dev Patel as the intrepid knight, the most salient arguments being (1) “Hey, he’s a British citizen” and (2) He’s also played David Copperfield. On Lowery’s end, he just wanted a less angry-looking Gawain, who still looked cool wielding a sword. Let’s just work with that. Besides, the buoyancy of Patel’s performance prevails all throughout.

The film opens with an ominous narration that establishes the theme, and then quashes it:

“Of all who reigned o’er, none had renown like the boy who pulled sword from stone.
But this is not that king…nor is this his song.”

The eerie voiceover then synchs with the jolting visual of the crown bursting into flames and setting Gawain’s head ablaze. By then, the purpose of the allusion is made clear: It’s an Arthurian tale, all right. Except, it’s not about Arthur.

The references sure are downplayed. Arthur is billed as simply “King” (Sean Harris), Guinevere is simply “Queen” (Game of ThronesKate Dickie), Morgan Le Fay is simply “Mother” (Sarita Choudhary), and Merlin, reduced to a mute cameo, is simply the “Magician” (Emmet O’Brien). Even Excalibur here is just a “sword”. Again, in this “adventure brave and bold”, Gawain takes center stage. No one else.

The beheading still sets the tale in motion. Gawain still wields the axe and still dons that magic girdle for protection. Apart from that, Lowery takes a slew of other liberties in his script. For starters, the title character (Ralph Ineson) now looks less human, more forest god (think medieval, middle-aged Groot) and the mother now has even deeper motives. New characters are also added to the mix. There’s Gawain’s peasant lover Essel (Alicia Vikander, captivating in dual roles), a creepy scavenger (Barry Keoghan), headless ghost Winifred (Erin Kellyman), and an animatronic fox who tags along for the most part. Purists may scoff at these digressions; others would argue they’re in for the ride.

The closer Gawain gets to the Chapel, the more his quest plays like a fever dream. Everything is bewitchingly conveyed by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s shifting color palettes. The most trance-like chapter by far is the encounter with Lord Bertilak de Hautdeserts, also unnamed here and portrayed by Joel Edgerton (Interestingly, he played Gawain in 2004’s King Arthur). In this pivotal sequence, Gawain is granted refuge by the noble lord in his palace, only to be tested by the alluring Lady (Vikander Role #2). This is where his self-doubt starts to peak.

It gets murkier by the final stretch. Some may feel that the poem’s underlying themes of Christianity VS. paganism are lost in the stylistic executions. But, realistically, not every literary nuance is bound to make it intact. Here, it’s Lowery’s visionary approach that truly delivers it home. The aftermath of the final encounter is delivered through montage that only sinks us deeper into ambiguity. The closing shot spawns more questions than answers. Did Gawain pass really the challenge? Did he or did he not prove his worth? Movies like this aren’t meant to spoon-feed. It’s always up for viewers to surmise and to discuss. This sure is worth the discourse.

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