Monday, 15 November 2021

Review: "The Green Knight"


David LOWERY (Dir.), “The Green Knight”, Sailor Bear Productions/BRON Studios/A24, 2021.

Longtime readers know that I am a fiend for canon, and that that obsession extends into many areas, not only Lovecraftian material. I am a keen Arthurian devotee, and I first discovered the travails of Sir Gawain when I was 13 or so, at about the same time that I discovered Tolkien. At that point I was devouring anything that carried the ‘T-word’ on its cover and so, naturally, I found Tolkien’s translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in the volume which also contained his version of the Pearl manuscript and the adventures of Sir Orfeo. Sir Gawain has been a constant companion of mine ever since.

The Arthurian story-cycle derives from many sources, some historic and some mythological, and the body of lore that it contains and which it reveals has been added to and re-worked by many scribes across an enormous period of time. It’s as if centuries of creative effort have formed a narrative landscape which is familiar to all who walk across it. To my mind, that landscape – the canon lore – is fundamental to the understanding of this material. Without it, working with the concepts is pointless – you would be better served creating your own story from scratch. I believe that canon – no matter for which genre, or lore, it forms the substrate – is sacred: one messes with it at peril. Others feel that canon is there specifically to be broken down and discarded: that’s fine; each to their own. We are all free to make our own ways with this stuff. It frustrates me, though, that people with the iconoclast mentality then try to insert their own stuff into the canon, the very thing that they’re rejecting out of hand. What they should really be doing is just making up their own stuff. This is what David Lowery should have been doing too.

To begin this dissection, let’s take a look at Sir Gawain. Of all the knights of Arthur’s Round Table he is the one that has the most originally distinct character – that’s after Lancelot, of course. Many of the knights have been built upon by later authors, and their characters have been established and crystallised over a period of re-telling. These personalities usually derive from attempts to explain why certain, seemingly inexplicable, narrative events take place. Thus, Sir Kay’s penny-pinching and resentful mien was identified by Thomas Malory and retrofitted into the other stories concerning him, while Sir Pellinore’s fusty and distracted attitude was built-in by T.H. White to suit his own narrative purposes. It’s arguable that the seeds of these personalities are discoverable, lying dormant in the canon, and so highlighting them in this fashion is entirely reasonable. Gawain, however, has had his own personality from the start.

Gawain’s “origin story” (if I can so express it) is that he is descended from the Orkney Kings, a son of Queen Morgawse, sister to Morgan-le-Fay, herself a half-sister of King Arthur. The Orkney knights have always been depicted as blow-in hayseeds, uncultured and wild, and an unsightly family obligation for Arthur to bear. Gawain is the eldest of the Orkney lads – who include Gareth, Agravaine, Yvaine and Mordred – and, as such, he is constantly corralling the others and trying to get them to behave in a manner becoming their status as royal scions. Sometimes this puts him on Arthur’s side, sometimes it doesn’t – a very political animal is Gawain, and his resentment towards such characters as Lancelot and Galahad is often palpable. At some point early on in the proceedings, his mother’s magical nature and faery heritage gave him some magical abilities – specifically, his strength increases from sunup, peaking at twenty-fold by midday, before dropping back down again by nightfall – but some writers choose to overlook this quirk. It remains, however, that Gawain was formed as a personality from the start, not just some characterless cipher, or spear-holder, about whom some foibles accreted over time as the need arose.

This being said, many of Arthur’s knights take on a particularly characterless flavour in the hands of some authors. Each knight strives to be an ideal, and this reaches its apotheosis in Sir Galahad: Galahad is not a personality at all; he’s a collection of idealized responses that represent knighthood in its most evolved form. This form was established by Arthur but corrupted before its final flowering by the need to make him a political agent; it was revived in Lancelot and then ruined by his romance with Guinevere (and further tainted by his incessant sleeping sickness and subsequent madnesses); and then it was imprinted upon Galahad as a ‘personality’. Whenever the spotlight turns to highlight another knight on his own particular journey – Sir Gareth, or Tristan for example – they often take on this idealized character for some, or all, of the narrative. In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Gawain wears this personality too, and keeps it until close to the end, when his political nature arises once more. His essential character always comes through in the end. In this film, with Dev Patel playing him, Gawain is once more true to his nature, despite everything which Lowery – as writer and director - does to try and break him.

(I should point out, too, that no-one in this movie has a name apart from Gawain and his girlfriend. Arthur is listed as “a King” and Merlin is “a Sorcerer”. Perhaps Lowery was trying to factor in some plausible deniability along the way? For the rest of my rant, I’m going to use the characters' actual names and not play into Lowery’s coy games – it feels like too much of an insult to do otherwise.)

Moving on, let’s take a closer look at the plot of the original poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. It begins with a Christmas feast during which Arthur declares that he will not eat until a fantastic tale, or a demonstration of some wonder is presented to him. Almost at once, the Green Knight appears to offer a challenge to the King: if he will take the ‘Knight’s axe he can deliver unto him a blow of his choice; he will not resist the strike, on the condition that – one year hence – Arthur will journey to the Green Knight’s abode and there receive the same undefended strike from the ‘Knight in return. As a matter of political expediency, Gawain takes on the King’s role in this exchange and – angry at the Green Knight’s effrontery – cuts that fellow’s head off. Untroubled by this, the ‘Knight gets up, retrieves his head and tells Gawain he will see him next Christmas to settle things. The challenge is thus set: Gawain waits a year and then sets out to pay his dues.

Along the way, he encounters a manor owned by a gracious Lord and his Lady. It’s a day’s journey to the Green Knight’s home and there are three days until Gawain must go there. The Lord invites Gawain to stay and rest: he says that he intends to go hunting on each of the next three days and that, if Gawain will keep his lady company, the Lord will give Gawain anything he obtains from that activity, on the proviso that Gawain will give him anything that he receives while resting in the manor. While the Lord rides out to the hunt, his Lady embarks on a campaign of seduction against Gawain, who is forced to work his hardest to deflect her attempts without insulting her. He capitulates only to give her a kiss, which he trades for the fox which the Lord brings him that evening. On the next day, Gawain is forced to yield up another kiss in exchange for a deer. On the third day, the Lady plays dirty pool: she offers Gawain a magical green girdle that will turn away all blades directed at him on the condition that he sleep with her. With his head at risk, Gawain does the deed, and, when the Lord shows up with a dead boar, gives him only a kiss in exchange for it, knowing that he is lying in order to save his own skin. In the final confrontation, the Lord is revealed to be the Green Knight in disguise, and he knows all about the girdle: thus discovered, Gawain rejects the magical protection and submits to the decapitating blow, only to be spared by the ‘Knight who praises his tardy truthfulness and gives him his axe as a token of honour to be taken back to Arthur as evidence of the strange tale.

These then are the tentpoles of the story. Even in this bald outline, we can see the stakes at play, and we know the pressures under which all of the characters are acting; it’s clear what is going on and why. If one was inclined to re-tell this story, it’s possible to embellish the elements and to play with the trappings of the story as seems fit; however, if you move the tentpoles, you do so at your peril. In this instance, that’s just what David Lowery has done – he has broken the narrative and now it longer makes any sense. Or rather, it makes the sense that he wants it to make; it’s just not clear exactly what that is as far as the viewer is concerned.

What is very clear in this movie, is that the director knows his Arthurian canon and that he knows it very well. It’s therefore even more baffling to see him break the narrative in the ways that he does. Primarily, he lays the origin of the Green Knight and of the magical girdle in the lap of Gawain’s mother – in this tale she comes up with both of them and the rationales behind them - along with their places in the narrative – become frayed and contentious. If the Green Knight is some test of Gawain’s mettle devised by his mother, then why is it so deadly, and why does Morgawse react with such surprise afterwards? If Morgawse is the source of the magical belt, then why have the sequence with the mysterious Lord and Lady at the end of the film at all? Here, unequivocally, the Green Knight and the Lord are distinct entities, the ‘Knight being an embodiment of Nature in the Green Man style, so why have the hunting sequence? The stakes have been removed from the game and, therefore, so has the point.

Replacing the core elements of the tale, Lowery lays on a bunch of nebulous blather about Gawain’s romantic life with an outcast girl played by Alicia Vikander (who, confusingly, also plays the role of the Lady), a bunch of travelling thieves and an encounter with a Welsh saint. None of which add to, or deepen, the narrative in any meaningful fashion. Sure, the tale of St. Winifred centres on decapitation, but why do we need to foreshadow something that’s been a burning issue since the opening act? Perhaps if the director had increased the pace of his screenplay and kept an eye on the clock, the viewers wouldn’t need such a reminder by the halftime mark. And why introduce material that has absolutely nothing to do with the Gawain legend, the story at hand, or anything to do with Arthurian lore at all? It reads as if the director got bored and wanted to play with other toys for a while.

Pacing is definitely an issue with this film. There are scenes which carry on for too long, shots that meander when they should be direct and to the point. Too often the camera lingers on a sheep or a flock of birds when it should be moving us to the crux of the scene. The opening sequence has a Hieronymous Bosch-like panoramic quality to it where the frame encompasses a wide number of elements each of which is suggestive of a larger story happening elsewhere; this is fine, but as often as the director indulges in such scenes, he forgets them later on. We spend too much time watching a single horseman walking from one side of the screen to another, or travelling the length of a long road comprising a single shot, and the story suffers as a result. This film is over two hours long and it doesn’t sufficiently reward the viewer for that investment. Rather, it punishes the audience, ridiculing them for engaging with it.

For instance, most of what goes on in the movie takes place in almost total darkness. Whole sequences are obscure, hard to fathom and basically impenetrable: the director could literally have left the lens cover on the camera whilst filming and we would have been just as informed as to what was taking place on screen. Perhaps he was trying to capture and impart a sense of a world without constant lighting such as we enjoy nowadays? It’s anybody’s guess, but surely there are better ways to do this in a visual medium. Such obscurity is normally code for the fact that the special effects are less than acceptable; here, when they’re visible at all, the effects are gorgeous and effectively realised - it seems that Lowery just wants us to not clearly see everything that he’s committing to film, for some bizarre reason of his own devising.

There are chapter divisions in the narrative, each headed by a title in a font which keeps changing as the film progresses. Why he couldn’t have picked one font and stuck with it I’m not sure, but to me it was distracting and weird. The section with the thieves is called “A Kindness”; the bit with St. Winifred has its own title; the one after that is simply called “An Interlude”. What? The previous two meaningless encounters weren’t “interludes” as well? Of course they were, but Lowery is playing around, and he’s slapping his viewers for giving him the time of day. In the end, all of these inserts into the narrative serve no purpose at all and are hugely indulgent, no matter how pretty they look (when you can see them at all).

What’s left is a long, tedious shemozzle. We wander along in Lowery’s idle footsteps following meaningless tangents which he instills with seemingly pregnant energy before dropping them and getting back to the main point… whatever that is. And it’s a shame: there are very few Arthurian stories committed to film that are any good and this could have been one of them, except that it feels like the director was sulking and wishing that he could have been doing something – anything – else. If “at least it was better than that earlier version with Sean Connery in it” was all that he was going for, then his work here is done, I suppose. The cast is great, the settings nicely realised, the costumes wonderful; however, like so many things served up as entertainment these days, the bones are bad - the foundations are crap. Perhaps Lowery should have just sat behind the camera and left the writing to someone else, someone who wasn’t trying so hard to be too clever by half. And perhaps he could have hired a lighting specialist while he was at it.

Two-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors from me.