Signs and Portents
The past is a distant country. The further away we travel from it, the more strange the customs feel and the more unlike our own times it becomes. Consider the life you lead right now, the things you take for granted and consider to be normal. Now consider how jarring it would be to time travel back to, say, 1951. The clothing, technology, standards, everything would feel odd, and 1951 was only 70 years ago.
Take that sense of disconnectedness and multiply it. You probably have something close to the chasm between how we think about the Middle Ages and the lived experience of Europeans. From the 8th to the 14th centuries an Islamic renaissance took place, in which all matter of leaps forward occurred in the arts and science. Europe, on the other hand, existed in a kind of awful stasis. When John Hobbes wrote in 1651 that, “The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” he could have been writing quite accurately about Europe in the Middle Ages.
We Americans aren’t the only ones who love revisionist history.* For a time, chivalric romances were insanely popular, particularly within the courts of royalty. The MCU of their time, these tales overlooked the pestilence and pointless wars that spread through the land, Instead, they were filled with magic, adventure, and frequently starred noble knights embarking upon perilous quests. They also formed the vast majority of how we think about the time now. When you imagine a knight in gleaming armor rescuing a fair damsel, you’re connecting to an echo of those chivalric romances. Most likely, the characters you know were King Arthur and his knights.
There have been a number of films about the Knights of the Round Table. Other than Excalibur, very few of them have leaned into the innate strangeness of the time. When a film comes along that deftly marries the old chivalric romances with, I assume, the deep and true weirdness of the Middle Ages, I get interested. The Green Knight is that film.
The tale of Gawain (Dev Patel) begins in a brothel. His lover is Essel (Alicia Vikander), a commoner. While her social status generally wouldn’t matter, it’s highly relevant here. You see, Gawain is a knight, it’s Christmas Day, and he’s expected to attend a feast at Camelot. Worst of all, the young man can’t find his boots.
He scampers home, just in time for a tongue-lashing by his mother (Sarita Choudhury). She’s better known as Morgan le Fay, a trafficker in dark magicks. Morgan has plans within plans, one of them concerning the young Gawain. Upon his arrival at Camelot, Gawain is summoned to the side of Arthur (Sean Harris) and he tells the King that he yearns for greatness and a chance to prove himself.
Gawain gets his chance with the arrival of the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a creature of the woods who issues a challenge to Arthur’s court. Whoever can land a blow upon him will gain the Green Knight’s mighty axe. However (and there’s always a “however” in these stories), the knight that delivers the blow must travel to the Green Chapel a year later. At that time, the Green Knight will deliver a strike of equal power.
Young men are prone to rash decisions, and Gawain is no exception. The Knight offers his head. Gawain obliges him with decapitation. And then? And then the Knight retrieves his head and rides off. Laughing, as he knows this is only the first step in Gawain’s journey. The young knight will encounter brigands, giants, a unique young woman (Erin Kellyman), and a lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady (Alicia Vikander, again) with bargains in mind. All of it leading to a wooded chapel and a choice.
Remember long, long ago when I mentioned that relatively few Arthurian films have the courage to get weird? The Green Knight is absolutely fearless in that respect, and director David Lowery has delivered a film that’s hallucinogenic, sensual, and spiritual. From the little I’ve read, people in the Middle Ages spent a great deal of time in terror. They huddled in close-knit communities and knew that beyond their walls was a vast and dark land. They knew magic was real and superstition was a widely accepted fact. Lowery immerses us in this world. If for no other reason, I implore you to see this film for the visual feast Lowery presents. The cinematography, set design, and costumes all come together to create something deeply beautiful and surreal.
Having said that, this isn’t a film that’s weird for weirdness’ sake. Lowery wrote the screenplay and adapted it from a chivalric romance written somewhere in the 14th century,** and he’s got quite a lot on his mind. He dives deep into notions of honor, both real and imagined, and the idea that Christianity shares more than a little DNA with Paganism. His screenplay is not what I would call linear. Gawain stumbles into events and encounters that have little to do with his quest, yet reveal a great deal about his character. Minutes of research tell me that chivalric romances told their story in much the same way and Lowery seems to be playing with the format as a kind of tribute.
While there are a number of excellent actors giving strong performances, Dev Patel carries the film nearly on his own. There’s a different kind of performance out there, one where Gawain is more flowery and talkative, declaring his love for love or duty. Patel goes the opposite direction, and his portrayal is largely nonverbal. He gets across everything he needs using his body and his eyes, and this kind of physical performance fits nicely into a film where so much is based on imagery.
I can’t imagine most people will want to immerse themselves into the phantasmagorical world of The Green Knight, and that’s okay. David Lowery has made a film aggressively unfamiliar to most 21st century eyes. For those interested in something older, something that urgently grasps the past, this film fits the bill nicely.
*Though we’re really good at it.
** Already I’ve seen bellyaching online about the fidelity of Lowery’s adaptation. Yep, there’s complaining over an adaptation of material more than 500 years old. Sometimes I really think that humanity was a mistake.