By Roy Mathur, on 2021-08-09, at 00:44:03--01:18:30 BST, for Captain Roy's Rocket Radio Show, Listen
Welcome to a special unscheduled episode to review David Lowery's new film The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel.
There are necessarily a few spoilers, but not too many.
In this version of The Green Knight, Dev Patel is a rash young squire and sorceress Morgana's (Morgan Le Fay) son, which does not bode well. After a heavy Christmas Eve booze session with his floozy, he accepts the challenge of trading blows with a mysterious and monstrous warrior who turns up in King Arthur's court on Christmas Day. The warrior says that whoever accepts shall, in one year hence, be returned the hit and part friends. Gawain, being an arrogant nutter, decides to lop of the thing's head because what could possibly go wrong? (BTW, The beheading game was an actual trope that shows you just how messed up medieval times were). The Green Knight arises, takes his head and heads home (sorry) cackling and expecting Gawain the next Christmas.
The year passes quickly, and Gawain reluctantly begins his quest with a protective girdle care of witchy mum.
Along the way, he's mugged by the medieval version of murderous hoodies, helps a crazy ghost, is guided by a talking fox, meets some cool giants, stays with a swinging lord and lady who both want their way with him, and runs off in time to meet his fate.
That's what happens, but before I tell you what I thought, let me tell you about my Arthurian baggage. I'm a King Arthur nut. I've had a peculiarly weird obsession with the Arthurian myth since childhood. It might have started with a general interest in medieval knights, but exploded when John Boorman's Excalibur, one of my ten best films of all time, was released in 1981. I was particularly taken by Nicol Williamson's Merlin. I can't believe he did not win an Oscar for the pivotal role, or that the film received mixed reviews at the time.
My obsession only grew over the years and I absorbed many interpretations of the myth in all media, including the many films, the romantic poetry (and imperial propaganda) of Tennyson, the TV show Merlin of the Crystal Cave (1991), the Marvel comic book series Knights of Pendragon (1990), the David Gemmell fantasy novels Ghost King and Last Sword of Power, etc.
My admittedly massive shortcomings in knowledge are that I have not, as yet, gone back to the medieval Matter of Britain, French sources, the even earlier Welsh Historia Brittonum by Nennius, to name but a few. Most relevant to this review, I have not read the anonymous 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or any of it's many translations (including one by J.R.R. Tolkien), though I have seen the Sean Connery film Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain---apparently terrible, though I did not think so---and possibly numerous other screen adaptations and documentaries of this popular Arthurian side-quest.
That is roughly my background in Arthurian lore, and so what did I think of the film?
The film ranges from unintentional comedy to deep thinking arthouse cinema. There's the Monty Python and the Holy Grail-type clip-clopping scene as our hero begins his against a fake-looking background. There are the revolting little juvenile delinquents, who came off as a bit silly. Then there is the beheading game, an actual medieval trope, which, if anything, increases the Python quotient. For better or worse, that film is what all Arthurian films are compared to. Making your film credible in the face of such effective parody is difficult, so let us move on.
Aside from Python, I feel that the film made me think of the bawdy, bare-chested carousing of Timothee Chalamet's Henry in Eastcheap in The King (2019), before he takes up the duties and responsibilities thrust upon him by noblesse oblige. The ghost light and epic landscapes are similar to those of Black Angel (a short about a knight returning from the crusades shown with The Empire Strikes back). The harsh coldness of that of The Name of the Rose, there is the choral grandeur and mysticism of Excalibur, the gothic strangeness of Macbeth's many adaptations... but it's really none of those things. It is its own thing.
And the lighting is so dark, that often I could barely out the scenes. Like the infamous Game of Thrones battle scene, I feel it was too dark. That, together with the slow pacing and an eerie choir---added to my slight illness and fatigue and the poor quality of the copy I watched---endowed the film with an extra dream-like quality.
Despite the arthouse feel, my take is it does not stray from the very conventional view of the story, and that is as a blatant allegory that pits the Christian knight Gawain against the green knight's embodiment of the pre-Christian green man of folklore, in a contest that will test Gawain's virtue. It does somewhat bend the myth, pointing out the hypocrisy of chivalry, the devious machinations of court, and clearly incorporates the horror of Sophocles's Oedipus the King, but it is essentially the same myth with a slightly different spin, which is entirely acceptable as the Arthurian myth is a many-threaded tangle.
On the subject of race, I'm glad of Patel's casting and he does a good job, though I hope he does not end up being the Sidney Poitier of British Asian actors. I get that he's a celeb face and he was in The Personal History of David Copperfield, but there are other actors of colour in the UK. Hello casting directors, I'm looking at you.
Is it good? The darkness made it difficult to see and the film was a little too slow, however, it is filmic ambience on a grand scale.