It isn’t that David Lowery is an unpredictable director; his films have thematic similarities with a common sense of loss and romanticism, but he certainly defies expectations. His first big film Ain’t them Bodies Saints was an atmospheric 70s set crime drama which made him a festival darling and proved a real calling card, so like the antiTarantino he followed it with a remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. He then made A Ghost Story about a woman dealing with bereavement while her diseased husband manifested as a guy with a sheet over his head. (Imagine Three Colours: Blue with special effects added by a parent who has realised that their kid doesn’t have a Halloween costume ten minutes before they are due go trick or treating.) This was followed by the Old Man and the Gun, about a guy who held up banks without a gun, and now we have The Green Knight, an arty and epic but slow paced retelling of a medieval King Arthur poem. If I had to guess what’s next, I’d suggest it might be musical version of the Bible with God played by Brian Blessed. (Oh okay, IMDb tells me it will in fact be new version of Peter Pan – I feel we should expect melancholy and puppets.)
There’s no denying it though, the man is kind of brilliant and this new film is probably both his most inaccessible and astounding. There is no shortage of King Arthur movies out there but few are great. It tells you all you need to know that the best film to feature Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table also has a killer rabbit, a cartoon cave monster and a squad of police cars. Lowery has succeeded though by not getting too bogged down in the famous trappings of the legend.
Many of the usual touchstones are there: Excalibur, Guinevere, Morgana, the circular furniture, Arthur himself, but the film bears them little heed beyond the role they play in the story. The film knows we are familiar with the old stories and much is communicated visually. We are not told, for example, that Morgana is a witch or that she is only Arthur’s half sister but we are shown it. This works less when there seems to be a similar assumption toward the end that the audience also knows the original verse this is adapted from (the motivations of the couple in the castle is clearer in the poem) but the avoidance of the loaded narrative works in its favour. It has no boxes to tick and is unburdened by seventeen hundred years of mythology.
The protagonist here is Sir Gawain, although he is demonstrably not a knight in this version. The knight of the title is a spectral tree like figure who enters Camelot uninvited with a dubious challenge for those there gathered. This does raise the question that if you need to be honoured by the king to officially be a knight then who appointed this big wooden guy to this position, but anyway he dares the assembly to take a swipe at him on the condition that anyone who lands a blow has to let him do the same to them in one year’s time. Not seeing the catch, the eager Gawain slices the intruders head off.
On the one hand you’d think he’d have known what he was setting himself up for here but at the same time he’d have been forgiven for thinking that the fella wouldn’t have come back from that injury. It turns out it is only a flesh wound though and the titular knight picks his head up and leaves, waiting for the game to continue three hundred and sixty five days hence.
Decapitating the guy seems a little harsh, he didn’t appear to be a real threat, but apparently this was a thing at the time. Several examples of mediaeval art and literature show this as a common ritual for knights to willingly engage in when they wanted to display their bravado. It goes over my head but I guess those involved at the time would have hoped for the same thing.
Still this is the set up and once the months have passed young Gawain has to travel to his opponent’s domain to honour the deal. It sounds fanciful when you write it down but it is lyrical in practice and has a filmic poetry to match the source material. The quest itself is slow and only fitfully eventful so if you are one of those people who got frustrated by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One then you might not have the patience for it but it is always engaging as Dev Patel’s Gawain moves across the beautiful but damp English (actually Irish) countryside, occasionally meeting people that all seem to want something from him. There is one scene where he encounters a group of a particular type of mythical creature that redefines how there are presented and is truly majestic.
Curiously when he eventually meets the viridescent chevalier it at first seems like an anticlimax but sit tight because it is here that Lowery picks up the pace and works things toward a perfect ending. Here the depiction of a man living in fear comes into it’s own and the metaphor and relatability of the whole story is opened up. We have been watching a medieval man seeking validation and nobility but the story is about masculinity and ambition, honesty and responsibility and has way more to tell us than any Knights who say Ni.
The Green Knight is an impressive film from an original director and as a new telling of an ancient tale it puts movies like Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf and Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy to shame. This, everyone, is how you make this type of film.
The Ripley Factor:
So what we have here is a film where the women are either queens, prostitutes, nuns, temptresses or witches but rather than avoiding these tropes Lowery redefines and to some extent empowers them. Gawain is defined by his relationships with these women rather than it being the other way around and each of them has strength and agency, despite sometimes being victims.
The whole plot is actually instigated by Gawain’s mother, which is quite weird when you consider where it goes and her influence extends even to the places where you really don’t want your mum to be. Again see the original text for a full understanding of this – to discuss it here would be a spoiler.
There is one quick thing I do want to get into quickly as I close though, so if you’ve not seen the movies stop reading now.
The end is ambiguous then with the question being, does he get his head chopped off or not? In the poem the answer is no but while there aren’t many changes to the original story, this may be one. For me this is the whole point of the vision he has (which initially seemed oddly rushed but when you see it is a dream and not reality then it works superbly). Without this his death would be downbeat and underwhelming but with it his demise and sacrifice becomes the happy ending. He death is given meaning for what his life wasn’t rather than what it was. Now, that’s a deep cut.