David Lowery | 2hr 5min
There many not be too many hardcore fans of Arthurian legends hoping that David Lowery’s adaptation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ remains faithful to its source material, but right up until the film’s final few minutes, this is surprisingly the case. It is no easy task maintaining secrecy around what exactly unfolds in this dénouement where the two stories part ways, especially given how much it represents the zenith of his stylistic and formal achievement of filmmaking, but this much can be said without risk of spoilers – his narrative’s eventual surrender to the creeping power of time and nature is far more in line with its pagan influences than its Christian.
The medieval kingdom of The Green Knight is built on fragile foundations of ego and pretence, with even its royal crowns radiating outwards like metallic imitations of iconographic halos. The sombre spirituality which can be found within these castle walls is not a bright beacon of faith, but is rather represented as a dark, deathly decay, pierced only by light pouring down from above like heavenly blessings. This is but a small taste of the transcendent, otherworldly power which Gawain will discover on his journey across the beautiful rolling landscapes of England, where encounters with scavengers, lords, and supernatural creatures gradually temper his ambitions of glory and honour. As he comes to grapple with the dark and mystical beauty of the world beyond King Arthur’s castle, so too does Lowery in his visual artistry, relishing the poetic fantasy and dreamlike imagery of such a grand, chivalric quest.
There is a sizeable difference between the medieval world which Lowery constructs here versus those grittier representations of the era from more historically-minded films. This is a setting which seems to spring forth from the oral tales of ancestors, as a visual sense of delicate impressionism emerges from within every set piece. Matte paintings are used early on during the Round Table scenes, effectively turning its backdrop of gaping arched hallways into a canvas upon which Lowery stages his ensemble of knights and nobles. Later as Gawain approaches the end of his journey, a supernatural orange mist engulfs the final trek, as if to tempt him away from the inverse colours of the Green Chapel. Such evocative imagery rejects any perceptions of this narrative as a piece of pure history, but rather establishes it as a tale that has been pulled apart and reconstructed thousands of times over centuries, distilling its core down to a pure expression of humanity’s total insignificance.
The destiny which the young knight Gawain finds himself bound to comes not from religious prophecies, but is instead foolishly created by his own hand. “Tell me a tale of yourself, so that I might know thee,” King Arthur implores him at a Christmas feast, and yet unlike those other great men of the Round Table, he has none. As if summoned by this request, a man made entirely of bark and leaves rides into the dining hall. He offers a challenge: anyone who shall land a blow against him must have the exact same blow delivered back to them one year later. Tempted by the glory, and feeling the pressure to prove himself worthy, Gawain steps forward and beheads the Green Knight. It is a show of superficial strength, but also of foolish arrogance, as he thus sets in stone a fate which will see him reap what he has sown.
Given its lyrical musings, cryptic symbolism, and enchanting monologues, The Green Knight is certainly a film built for multiple viewings. The threat of Gawain losing his head lies as a persistent undercurrent beneath his quest, especially as he is met along the way with the task to retrieve another’s from within a spring. But as he searches for greater significance, it also comes to signify something more personal to our hero – a spiritual chastening, through which he loses his ego and accepts the presence of greater natural forces at play. The ravages of time specifically wreak great devastation upon human delusions of power, and in formally recurring visions of alternate futures seeded throughout the film, Lowery continues to posit either one of two ideas – either we meet the consequences of our actions in the present, or we meet it further down the road. Twice do we see such visions paired with slow-moving, 360-degree camera pans through which he evokes the steadily pivoting hands of a clock, visually manifesting the glacial encroachment of nature and time upon the realms of men.
And indeed, these two forces are often bound together in the film, fusing both physical and metaphysical worlds within the representation of the Green Knight himself. He is patient, but also inevitable. He does not seek out Gawain, and yet he doesn’t need to. Most importantly, he is no villain. He encourages those at the end of their lives to not experience death as a terrifying epiphany, but rather a great humbling. As for when exactly one meets their end – that is merely a reflection of their own actions towards the world at large. Such delicate poetic justice instils The Green Knight with a cyclical structure, not so much within Gawain’s immediate story, but within the hypnotic rhythms and repetitions of the world around him, and consequently pulls us ever deeper into its mystical, foreboding heart.
The Green Knight is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.