The Green Knight: Gawain you good thing

Visually impressive but narratively suspect take on the Arthurian legend

Dev Patel is Gawain, a whoring, hardly noble knight with a claim to the throne

Film Title: The Green Knight

Director: David Lowery

Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 130 min

Fri, Sep 24, 2021, 05:00

   

Picking up where A Ghost Story (and to a lesser extent, The Old Man and the Gun) left off, the final blistering 20 minutes of The Green Knight touch on mortality, morality, and cinema’s unique capacity to manipulate death, to expand and truncate time, a mastery that seems all the more important placed alongside Will Oldham’s expansive consideration of ephemerality in A Ghost Story. 

The final, dazzling sequence of director David Lowery’s eagerly awaited adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight approaches his 2017 film’s profundity with a deconstruction of the nature of heroism. In common with Lowery’s earlier short, Pioneer, the sequence insists that all things are fleeting, leaving the verdant-coloured protagonist with two choices: make the ultimate sacrifice and die a hero or die anyway.

It’s a pity that the preceding two hours don’t always fit, either thematically or qualitatively, with this dramatic, meaningful denouement.

Lowery, one of contemporary cinema’s greatest directors, aims high with his tale of Gawain (the marvellous Dev Patel), a whoring, hardly noble knight with a claim to the throne. 

One Christmas morning, when a mystical figure appears in King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) court; Gawain reluctantly rises to the challenge and lops off the interloper’s head, only for the foe to rise, pick up his head, and promise to visit the same fate upon Gawain one year hence. 

What follows parrots Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a hero of happenstance rather than design. Lowery even recreates Lyndon’s highway robbery, staged by a twinkling yet menacing Barry Keoghan. Ultimately, for all the picaresque doodling and Irish countryside (Tipperary and Offaly play 14th-century Britain) on screen, the English nobleman in line for the throne makes a poor bedfellow for an Irishman of no means but many circumstances. Shakespeare’s Henry V would surely have provided a better template?

Lowery spent more than a year wrestling with the final cut of The Green Knight and it frequently shows. For every indelible image and scene – Erin Kellyman’s ghostly Saint Winifred seeking her head is marvellous to behold – there’s another that clangs.

The entirety of the penultimate section – featuring Alicia Vikander in a second role and Joel Edgerton as a lord – should have been filleted from the movie. 

Here, prior and fleeting moments of absurdity give way to full-blown nonsense that is one set of coconut hooves from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with all of the bafflement and little of the humour. Conversely, there isn’t nearly enough of Arthur’s court, nor of Sarita Choudhury’s maternal and appropriately enchanting Morgana le Fay.

It’s certainly something to see – especially Malgosia Turzanska’s costumes and Jade Healy’s production design – and plenty to mull over but both the viewer and the film-maker should have guessed from the offset that there can only be one Barry Lyndon.