Rolling Stone

‘The Green Knight’

David Lowery’s take on the 14th-century poem about Sir Gawain’s quest for greatness turns Arthurian legend inside out.


It is Christmas, and King Arthur (Sean Harris) is in his court. His queen, Guinevere (Kate Dickie), is on one side. His nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) sits on the other. It’s a typical holiday feast for these royals and the knights of the round table, but for an unexpected guest: the Green Knight, a man with skin seemingly made of bark and a voice arisen from some unknowable, earthen place. He is rough, rigid — he looks the way a swamp smells, only harder. And he has come to this feast with a mission of sorts. He wants to play a game.

The Green Knight is David Lowery’s take on the 14thcentur­y chivalric poem

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” — and in the nature of the best adaptation­s, it revises the material freely. But the Texas-raised writer-director holds fast to one major aspect of the premise. This visitor (played by an unrecogniz­able Ralph Ineson) presents his fellow knights with a challenge: Take his giant axe, deal him a fearsome blow, and in a year and a day’s time, meet him at the Green Chapel, where he will return the blow in kind. Gawain, eager to make something of himself, steps forward. The Green Knight sets down his arms and takes a knee. Gawain takes the blow, and the mysterious man is decapitate­d. Wait, is it really that easy?! Yet in the next moment, the knight stands up, grabs his head, and trounces away — cackling.

So begins the unusual journey, oft retold yet never quite as disarmingl­y or movingly as in Lowery’s film — a strange beast from the start. There be giants. A fox talks. A headless woman makes odd requests, and Gawain finds himself in the middle of a lust triangle with some lordly swingers. Arthurian legends and their like have already lent themselves to so many fizzy and overwhelmi­ng fever dreams, as if we’d all decided at some point that medieval tales were a readymade stoner genre. ( Excalibur, I’m looking at you.)

The themes of the original Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are — and, over years of scholarshi­p, have very much been — subject to interpreta­tion. Chivalry, temptation, Christiani­ty, and even latent feminism have all been lobbed at the text as explanatio­ns for its peculiar essence. It’s hard to imagine adding yet another dimension of interpreta­tion to a 14th-century Arthurian legend such as this. But Lowery’s angle is the power and danger of stories in themselves: Gawain’s “win” has become a chivalric tale told with puppets to gaggles of wide-eyed children. Those shows end with a cliffhange­r,

as everyone knows the clock is ticking for the young man. The Green Knight’s challenge places a great weight upon him. It is not an accomplish­ment; it is something for him to live up to. Will he?

The Sir Gawain of the poem is already a knight.

But Patel’s Gawain is no great hero — yet. And his uncle, King Arthur, comes off as a man making up for lost time, a father figure going out of his way to make something of his flailing and misguided nephew. (The British regent is one of Western culture’s most identifiab­le heroes, and yet even here, Lowery fashions the man as a hero with a soft touch.) “Remember,” the king says with a knowing look, “it is only a game.” Later, Gawain asks, “Why do you hold me to this light?” — why try to make something of him, who is nothing? “Is it wrong to want greatness for you?” Arthur asks.

Well, The Green Knight supposes, it actually might be! Gawain’s lover, Esel — one of the handful of roles to date to give Alicia Vikander a chance to flex her winning talents, and one of two she plays here; she’s also the Lady, wife of Joel Edger

ton’s Lord — is the person who steps in with a voice approachin­g something like reason. “Why greatness? Why is goodness not enough?”

This is a question with the power to snuff all mythology and lore of its power; greatness is the gas in legend’s engine. It’s the stuff worthy of monument and epic poems. But it’s the future knight’s mediocrity, his fearfulnes­s, and his cowardice that have long made Sir Gawain such a memorable character. And it’s this aspect that the movie, and Patel’s chittering performanc­e, seizes on.

At the Green Chapel, Gawain meets his fate in so many ways — and it’s here that Lowery brilliantl­y strays from the source material, making good on the uncanny mysteries that pervade his movie. The encounter is an exercise in the rejiggerin­g of time (a Lowery specialty; see 2017’s A Ghost Story) and the power of fantasy. Whether Gawain completes the contest in due course is not exactly beside the point, but it isn’t the period capping off the movie’s winding ramble of a sentence either. It’s what he sees when he gets there, at the foot of the Green Knight’s throne, in a cavern of stone and brush, that unlocks the mysteries of this story. It may just be a game, as Arthur says. But Lowery’s The Green Knight seems poised to make a man of its hero, in the most virtuous sense. But if goodness isn’t enough by the end, given what he endures, the Gawain of this film will most certainly wish that it was.

 ??  ?? The Green Knight
Dev Patel
STARRING Alicia Vikander Joel Edgerton
Sean Harris Ralph Ineson David Lowery
Patel is ready
to take on his biggest challenge.
The Green Knight Dev Patel STARRING Alicia Vikander Joel Edgerton Sean Harris Ralph Ineson David Lowery Patel is ready to take on his biggest challenge.
 ??  ?? Lowery brings on the knight.
Lowery brings on the knight.
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