The Green Knight on Film
The Green Knight, Directed, written, edited & produced by David Lowery. Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris and Ralsph Ineson.
I was very interested to see this film when it was released. I wanted to see how successfully Arthurian legends had come to the big screen on this occasion, and how it compared to Boorman's Excalibur and other sword-and-sorcery films actually rooted in mythology and legend. Here are the thoughts I had at the time.
It looks amazing, visually superb. Control of setting, lighting, staging, camera, lighting is flawless. The music is moody, appropriate, expertly done. The performances from all of the cast are excellent. There is a great deal to enjoy.
More, the film manages to avoid some of the traps that stalk large-screen adaptations of the material. One: it never reminds you of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and its pretention-skewering of fake medievalism. Two, we never feel that this is just costume drama, that these are modern-folks dressed up. The mood, sensations and actions, even the thought-processes of these characters -- in so far as we are privy to them, given how unspoken this film is -- feels authentic, as belonging to its time and place. That time and place is appropriately dark-ages Britain. It's largely a pre-medieval Britain, far from the courtly 14th century sophistication of the era in which the original poem was produced. All of this is fine. The medieval material harks back anyway to an older time, to a more primitive time than Chaucer or the London and south-east England era of high medievalism. This is a medieval England, raw and basic. There never was a less impressive version of Arthur's court put on screen: it's a tower and cluster of buildings round its base. Forget the great castles of 12th century England and later. Indeed, forget Camelot. The word is never used: this film is stretching deeper, reaching for a mythological core.
About the visual language: some of the sequences, particularly at the end, aim to communicate visually and cinematically, using only sound and vision, images and music. This visual language recalls Tarkovsky -- than which I can give no higher cinematic praise -- both in Andrei Rublev, and the style of Mirror or Nostalgia. Enjoy.
As for Camelot, it's never mentioned: at no point does the film evoke the medieval aesthetic of Courtly Love. So, forget Lancelot and Guinevere, or jousting for a lady's favour, or poetic language. There is a round table, but we only catches glimpses, and nothing is made of its symbolism. There is a love-story, but it's complicated, and certainly has nothing to with rescuing maidens from castles.
The film goes to great lengths to reinvent the Arthurian material on screen, and achieves a great deal. We're taken a long way beyond Boorman's Excalibur, and it really does feel like a modern response to the material.
I've been working with Gawain for a year and more. I really wanted to like this film, and for half of it, my wishes were fulfilled, even though as, one by one, liberties are taken with the story that depart from the source material. All treatments of Arthurian material are, and always have been, adaptations: changes to suit changing circumstances and changing messages. And as the film proceeds, most of these seem reasonable and made for good, cinematic reasons, and they seem to shed light on the story.
But what the film does with the story, especially towards the end, is puzzling. Given the level of control over every other aspect, there's a curious lack of control at the end, something that cinematic shorthand is used to cover over. Perhaps the final seconds of the film are emblematic of this uncertainty, this lack of focus of direction, that creeps up and takes over the whole of the film. I won't describe those final seconds here: you'll know when you get there.
What's going on?
The film is reaching for mythological depth. There are times when it makes The Lord of the Rings look like children's stuff. Throwing out Courtly Love and almost anything that normally goes with knights-in-armour, the film reaches for a more primitive core, putting on screen people who are scarcely in control of their environment, who understand neither their own place in the universe or their emotions.
Early on, we're introduced to Gawain's mother. She's not in the original material, but there is a legitimacy to this. The source material figures a dialectic between Christian patriarchalism and a pagan matriarchy allied to magic, from which male honour, chivalry, chastity and virtue win out. Towards the end of the original poem the Host, who looked after Gawain in the final days of his quest, summarises and explains that the evil that he was doing battle with was all down to Morgan le Fay. She hasn't been in the poem previously, so it's an attempt in the poem to wrap up loose ends and fasten down symbolism. So, in this way, it's easy to understand the women in the story as Gawain's encounter with the triple-goddess of old Celtic mythology. Originally heroes came off badly from meeting these three witches or crones, and, like Macbeth, die. In the poem Gawain emerges victorious. In the new film, the same symbolism is picked up through the portrayal of Gawain's mother as a witch, and as the instigator of the whole story. In the later stages of the film, when we see what would have been the result if Gawain had shown cowardice, she reappears, connected to Gawain's love-interest, the birth of his child, and the fall of the kingdom. There is a consistency to all this which links with the mythology.
So far, so good. This all connects with the second strand of mythological symbolism running through the film. It goes like this: Arthur is a weak, enfeebled king. The land is waste, unexplained wars are happening offstage. The court is no more than a small warrior-band hanging on to rituals of kingship that seem ineffective, and hardly glorious or splendid. The beheading game happens at Christmas. The Green Knight is a version of the Green Man or country-lore. We see his beheading to symbolise the winter death of the old year. We might expect Gawain's triumph to lead to a spring rebirth. So feminine principles and fertility over-rule masculine attempts to keep going a single line of male descent. When Gawain meets the Green Knight for the second time in the film, he's a frozen, static figure, like a dead or dying tree in a ruined chapel, lost in a forest. He comes to life with the falling of the sunlight on him on Christmas morning.
All of this fits together. The women -- queens, witches, maidens, ladies, mothers, Godesses -- are in harmony with the natural cycle of the seasons: a pagan, natural magic, and Gawain doesn't understand what his role is meant to be.
In the poem, Gawain's role is to be virtuous, chaste, honourable, not to yield to the seductive wiles of women, and for this, ultimately, he is rewarded, and his life is spared. There is one respect in which he yields, however, but it is subtle, and perhaps the subtlety explains its absence from the film. The magical green girdle that can protect him is given to him by the Host's wife in lieu of sex, after Gawain has refused her. Gawain doesn't initially confess to having received this talisman, and is given a minor punishment for the transgression. He feels ashamed thereafter, but back at Camelot no one minds and he's celebrated as a hero.
In the film the same green girdle is made by Gawain's mother. We see her putting spells into it. Early in the film, Gawain is either unwilling or unable to consummate his relationship with the woman who is his love interest. She loves him, but he won't commit: there's some staring into the distance while she tries to engage him. At the end, when he comes back, the sexual tension is resolved. On this level, the story in the film seems to be an allegory about restoring male potency. The girdle or lady's belt has an ambiguous role to play. It doesn't now seem to offer any protection against violent injury, but instead to be some kind of safeguard against sex. Gawain won't take it off when the Host's wife tries to seduce him, but he does ejaculate onto the belt, and we presume that penetrative sex has not occurred. Are we to understand that this was the purpose of his mother's spells, to protect him? In one of the sequences at the end we see Gawain remove the belt when he reunites with his love-interest, and all sorts of disasters result. All of this symbolism is within a parenthesis, however, a what-if ...
Much is made in the film of Gawain's encounter with St Winifred -- whose symbolism is chastity -- and the companionship of a fox that goes with Gawain through the rest of his adventure. It's implied that St Winifred is the fox, and he seems to be protected while the fox is with him. Close to the end the fox disappears into the forest, and Gawain makes his second encounter with the Green Knight for the conclusion of the beheading game.
What if . . . (the film asks) Gawain was a coward and ran away from the beheading? The film dramatizes the consequences through montage, and the result seems to be the fall of the kingdom, but in the meantime Gawain is crowned king after Arthur's death. All of this is wholly additional to the source material, so clearly David Lowery, writer, director, feels strongly about it, including all the business with the fox. What manipulation of the myth is happening here?
The film seems to want it both ways. We see at some length the consequences if Gawain showed cowardice. Is the implication then, that if . . . Gawain didn't show cowardice, but received the fatal blow, all would be well? This would harmonise with the nature-symbolism. Gawain would stand as sacrificial victim, killed by a nature-god so that the spring will come again, and fertility restored to the land. This is the purpose towards which the women -- all of them pagan witches -- have worked.
A brave reworking, and one that fixes its sights on the Celtic mythological roots behind and buried within the original poem. The film will pay repeated viewing, and it's certainly a major addition to Arthurian cinema. There are some great vignettes: the wife's use of a camera obscura to make a portrait of Gawain; the puppet-show version of the tale; the episode on the wasteland which ends in Gawain hog-tied, in which the film reaches for something Shakespearean out of King Lear. And Dev Patel as Gawain, and Alicia Vikander as The Lady/Essel are always wholly convincing.