‘The Green Knight’ proves to be a refreshing, atmospheric twist on the medieval tale.
Following its UK release being delayed by a month, David Lowery’s fantasy-epic The Green Knight has now hit cinemas across the country, as well as Amazon Prime, and has more than matched up to the praise already heaped upon it by critics elsewhere.
The film brings to life the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the most famous legends surrounding the knights of the Round Table. The tale, written down by an anonymous poet back in the fourteenth century, is perhaps not among those legends most readily translatable to the cinema. Less a tale of quests, romance or combat, The Green Knight is mostly a simple morality tale, teaching chivalric virtues while also touching upon notions of honour and sexuality.
The original story is more or less what we get here. A ghastly green knight arrives in Camelot on Christmas Day and challenges the King’s nephew, Gawain, played brilliantly by Dev Patel. The Knight allows himself to be beheaded, only to place his head back on his shoulders, and challenge Gawain to come to him, to take the same blow himself, in one year’s time.
What really sets this film apart however is it’s direction, and the haunting, dreamlike atmosphere it creates, which very much distinguishes it from most medieval epics.Throughout the film there is a deep sense of mystery and ambiguity. From the various background characters Gawain encounters, all of which seem to be hiding double meanings and acting as almost spiritual obstacles, to the haunting, entirely wordless, nightmare vision that comes right at the end, the film is packed full of moments or shots that are never fully explained, and left open to interpretation. Whilst this could risk coming off as frustrating or pretentious, it works exceptionally well here in that it helps to build a hypnotic, unsettling atmosphere that gives the sensation Gawain is more and more trapped the further he goes on.
The ideas, explicitly stated, behind why the Knight is green, are echoed everywhere, through shots of moss, and earth, and rot, as well as the design of the Knight himself, which evokes an older pagan mysticism, rather than the Christianity of the central characters. Instead of repeating the kind of sword and sorcery cliches found in other takes on Arthurian legends, and the wider fantasy genre as a whole, Lowery’s film emphasises the sense of the mythic, creating a world full of mystery, where magic is both all around us, and utterly unknowable.
The whole thing looks incredible, with some exquisite shots of harsh and empty moorland, or of the mountainous Irish landscape in which much of the filming took place. While some of the best shots come simply through capturing this countryside, there’s also some truly outstanding visual direction by Lowery.
One of the most exceptional and breath-taking parts of the whole film comes with the ‘interlude’ that takes place approximately halfway through, which in strictly plot terms amounts to little more than simply Gawain walking on his journey, but which conjures up an incredible atmosphere. We glimpse giants – not the typical giants of fantasy films, but creatures that seem truly otherworldly – while the camera slowly shifts the world upside down as he marches further and further towards his destination.
There is some truly amazing lighting and sound design throughout, such as in the scenes where Gawain finally comes to the so-called Green chapel, which are being bathed in an almost sickly yellow light. The soundtrack by Daniel Hart is also incredible, much of it sounding straight out of some 14th century verse. All this helps to build an atmosphere that feels like this is truly from out of mythology.
There is much in The Green Knight which will likely seem impenetrable to many viewers. Nevertheless, this is one of the most visually striking and unique films to be released this year, as well as a truly distinct addition to the numerous different takes on the Arthurian legend.
Words by Daniel Goldstraw
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