Director David Lowery’s and indie studio A24’s latest and most ambitious feature to date- a sprawling medieval epic- surprisingly initiates with a concise, grounded microcosm depicting true honor in the face of adversity as opposed to something like brash swordplay. A quaint, painterly setting of serene farm animals is violently disrupted by a farmhouse caught aflame in the corner of the frame. The creatures, the farmer and the farmer’s wife are all bewildered, but instead of cowering in the face of fear, the farmer departs to defend his community and loved ones, sure to perish in the process. As this occurs, the chillingly observant camera pulls back from the destruction through a cobblestone window to a slumbering Gaiwan (Dev Patel, supremely emotive as ever), utterly oblivious.
Adapting the centuries-old chivalric romance Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight by an anonymous author, Lowery flexes his mastery over the material with an enthralling coming-of-age fantasy that smartly subverts and embraces Arthurian legend with equal aplomb, hauntingly reshaping it through an evocative postmodern prism. It’s a lyrical and dense work of cinematic poetry itself, wrought with grippingly singular aesthetic intuition.
That opening scene almost serves as both a parable and premonition for the proceeding events, grounding its story in harrowing humanity while permeating the film with ominous atmosphere. Gaiwan is leading an average existence, dominated by hard drink and nightly trips to the brothel, where his beloved romantic partner Essel (Alicia Vikander) resides. One evening, he is invited to a lavish Christmas feast hosted by his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie); Arthur implores Gaiwan to tell him a story about himself, to which he replies he has none to recount.
Almost like a rhythmic transition between two stanzas and spurred by the devious actions of his witch mother Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), the Green Knight (portrayed with delicious malice by Ralph Ineson) appears. He’s a hulking, monstrous amalgamation of bark and flesh with a “game” to pose to the roundtable of noble knights: Deliver a blow to him, and he will reciprocate the exact same one in a year’s time. Zealous to attain a prestigious title but not truly understanding the cost of it, Gaiwan impetuously decapitates the Green Knight only for the creature to pick up his head; insidiously retort, “One year hence;” and ride away on his stallion, laughing maniacally. The world is radically more complicated than Gaiwan could have ever realized and thrillingly more complex than the legends of old that inhabit and inform this story.
Like Greta Gerwig’s sensational adaptation of Little Women, this film brilliantly utilizes the constructs of storytelling itself in its boldly contemporary thesis, such as an exhilarating conclusion of propulsive visual storytelling that recontextualizes its source material and some richly drawn vignettes, including an encounter with a malevolent thief (Barry Keoghan); conversation with a ghost named St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who beseeches Gaiwan to find her lost head; and a cryptic Lord (Joel Edgerton) and wily Lady (Alicia Vikander, once more, in a dual role) who lure Gaiwan into their secluded castle.
What ensues is a surreal, profound enrichment of this broad morality tale as Gaiwan ventures beyond Camelot to meet his fate, incentivized by finally gaining the clout to become a knight. With the masterful cinematography composed of textured hues and the genre-blending score, Lowery immerses the audience into a sensual and mesmerizing world of captivating mysticism, one where death can unfurl just as quickly and inevitably as the verdant moss blooms.
For all the grand machinations of this particular lore, The Green Knight understands our detrimental perceptions of Arthurian parables- how we become so desperate to grasp its idealistic principles that it muddies the precision of our approach. Gaiwan seems more enamored with the prestige of being a noble knight than the fulfilling journey to becoming one, forming a deft juxtaposition between the deceptive reality and fiction of Patel’s insolent character as well as our own existence.
“Are you real, or are you a spirit?” a confounded Gaiwan inquires of St. Winifred. “What is the difference? I just need my head,” she abrasively responds. Lowery is certainly concerned with traditional themes of heroism, mortality and valor, but he also understands that personal conviction- the sheer will to live with one’s own choices in any given moment- is equally vital in a treacherous modern landscape.
Pensive and abstract, The Green Knight immaculately transports us beyond destiny when humanity comes crashing back to nature itself, absorbing and distilling it for generations to come. It’s a cerebral cautionary tale of when goodness simply does not suffice, the true price of morality; this indelible film adheres to one’s very being, swirling around your brain like the pristine snow or autumnal greenery tainted by blood and magic. Lowery has meticulously crafted a quintessential, revolutionary piece of chivalric cinema- prophetic and enigmatic and rewarding and challenging and utterly alive- that thrillingly updates not only the annals of literature but the intricacies of our very own consciousness.
The Green Knight is now available in theaters.
Photo Credit / A24
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A24’s ‘The Green Knight’ masterfully modernizes the medieval genre