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The David Lowery 2021 film The Green Knight

If you would like to make your own "true to the source material" cinematic version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, David Lowery's written and directed The Green Knight leaves that highway wide open. When the film begins and a decorative lettering style tells us the story is by "Anonymous" instead of the "Pearl Poet" we are alerted that we are venturing into both familiar and completely unfamiliar territory.

In Lowery's retelling of the story, characters from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are reconfigured and streamlined, and the story itself is restructured to emphasize some of the original's sentiments, but in other ways a great deal is left out and a modern, 21st century attitude with an appetite for magic and witchcraft has taken hold. Despite the insertion of quite a bit which is wholly new with no direct connection to the ancient text at all, still The Green Knight follows the main plot line of the original telling beginning more or less with the disastrous Christmas Party and then the long journey to the Green Chapel.

While an effort is here to hew to the spirit of the original tale, Lowery goes about it almost like a magic trick, not unlike the hand-and-hidden-coin tricks shown to us in the film by a bandit, where the object our eyes follow does not end up where we think it does. With a title for this movie that only indicates the titular character in green, but also implying the ironic situation of this version's Sir Gawain, Lowery makes clever use of his original source material and satisfies the modern appetite for finding double-meanings. Here Gawain is portrayed not as a developed and determined knight who has but a few lessons to learn, but onscreen is an aimless young man looked upon by his mother and by a king uncle who is a father figure, and we see that this pair expect much more out of Gawain (played by Dev Patel) than what the fellow himself is aware of or initially seems capable of.

Visually the movie is a marvel of imagination. Creativity gives the interior scenes a carefully contrived hydrid-medieval look coupled with a sheer prettiness that dominates at times. The abundant outdoor scenes are usually gorgeous, whether verdant and green or in the bare settings of desolate places. The scenery itself is a character in Lowery's movie, though it isn't as fully exploited as it is in the original tale. But, then, Lowery's film is a significantly shorter version and with the addition of new characters not in the original, we have varied side stories to attend to despite the frequently long sections of the film which has no-dialogue, as if Lowery the scriptwriter is rationing English to the audience.

Something of an art film sensibility deeply divides this film from any typical "sword and armor" film. Though the Green Knight's enormous axe is often on the screen, there are few swords or axes displayed or used in this movie, and only the occasional pleading of a character about what a knight is (or is not) reminds us that there is a question about the status of knights, that is, whether it is deserved, and if it is, is it based upon actions, or appearances (it is interesting that Lowery's movie doesn't make any attempt to sort out the question by using violence, which is one of the main methods used in the vast bulk of knightly movies out of Hollywood.).

Instead of directly taking on the difficulty of the original tales ethos of word-keeping and the strategy and necessity of knightly courtesy, The Green Knight is a phantasy story more about hardship and confusion, and, surprisingly, is both anti-knight and pro-knighthood in a fashion that isn't in the original text (which contains its own smuggled critique). In The Green Knight we are shown scenes of warfare after the fact, a field of dead soldiers and no explanation for how or why they were slain there. No abundance of stunt scenes or banging swords pervades this film, in fact one of the main (and subtly humorous) aspects of the original tale having to do with Gawain's splendid suit of armor and the magnificent shield he carries is discarded almost entirely in this movie, with the shield cracked and useless early on and Sir Gawain only protected by a shirt of chainmail and an orange cloak as he pursues his quest.

The original tale has to do with the limits and demands of courtesy, and fashioned within The Green Knight is a cinematic dilemma that mimics the original story without trying to lift the whole scope of that challenge, instead bottling up the whole issue into whether Sir Gawain can face the Green Knight at their appointed moment at the Green Chapel for the return blow that will conclude the Christmas game begun one year earlier. Using movie trickery having to do with time displacement, Lowery tries to have his cake and eat it too as far as giving us a much more 21st century Sir Gawain facing his nemesis and his own fears, and it is up to the individual viewer to decide if Lowery has pulled it off, or has betrayed the original text.


Related: Books about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Original page July 30, 2021 | Updated October 8, 2021

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