Ciarán Howley gives his impression of David Lowery’s recent medieval film: The Green Knight.
English Literature students will know, and bemoan, the name all too well. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century poem from the mediaeval era and a staple of most English reading lists. The identity of its author may be lost to time, but the recent A24 adaptation reveals that the core values of the tale maintain a degree of relevance. After a run-in with a mysterious figure, the film follows Sir Gawain’s quest for the Green Knight and offers up his head in the process (literally).
David Lowery, known for his previous efforts like A Ghost Story and The Old Man and the Gun, presents audiences with an epic love letter to storytelling. It features all the highs and lows of your chivalric tales: knights on horseback in shining armour, ancient prophecies, and a reluctant hero on the precipice of adulthood. This young chevalier takes the form of Gawain, played by the incomparable Dev Patel. His casting breathes some much-needed life into the story and diverts the film from becoming another stodgy and over-saturated period film no one asked for. While period films and television series are often about escaping into new worlds, they can fall short of giving the audiences compelling characters they can latch on to. The Green Knight is not one of them.
“As the audience becomes wrapped up in the theatrics, these more subdued plot points unfurl in tragic fashion and culminating in the film’s more ambivalent conclusion.”
Lowery’s film clears up any misgivings people may find with the original text and with ‘the great works’ in general. It’s not an indulgent film by any means and Lowery really takes the viewer back to basics. What are stories and why have they always been the backbone of civilization? And what does it even mean to be a hero today? Patel is endearing through his characterisation of this young, naive man, often prone to temptation. The film includes sobering touches like his fraught relationship with his mother (Sarita Choudhury) and the isolation she experiences for practising witchcraft. The film also explores class commentaries through the romantic relationship between Gawain and Essel (Alicia Vikander), a woman not of noble birth. As the audience becomes wrapped up in the theatrics, these more subdued plot points unfurl in tragic fashion, culminating in the film’s more ambivalent conclusion.
That’s not to say that the film is not visually interesting. In fact, it’s quite daring. A frequent collaborator of Lowery, Andrew Droz Palermo helmed the cinematography, forging some of the film’s iconic imagery. Palermo holds back on the use of wide landscape shots that are ever-present in period and high fantasy films and instead opts for close ups and medium shots, underpinning how central our connection with the characters is in this iteration of the tale. The ingenious Malgosia Turzanska oversees the costumes, which are dripping with references to mediaeval art and foreshadow some of the juicier twists that take place.
Although stumbling in a few places with pacing, The Green Knight is a romantic gesture to the craft of stories, a brainchild of sheer imagination. Worth the hype? Indeed.