GORE IN THE STORE
THE GREEN KNIGHT ***
Directed by David Lowery.
Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton.
Fantasy, US, 122 minutes, certificate 15.
Released in the UK in cinemas by Entertainment Film Distributors and streaming on Amazon Prime from 24th September.
David Lowery certainly has a diverse filmography. On one hand he has managed to deliver such mainstream titles as the underrated remake of PETE’S DRAGON for Disney and gift Robert Redford with the entertaining and touching swansong of THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN. On the other he has a resolutely arthouse streak evidenced by the Terrence Malick stylings of AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS and the dreamlike A GHOST STORY, which is memorable for many reasons, not least being the unlikely staging ground for the biggest bust up I’ve ever witnessed in a cinema.
So, into which of these camps does this medieval fantasy fall? More suited to the arthouse crowd with its patience testing approach to narrative but its stunning visual style will no doubt lure in fantasy fans. Based on the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery’s story concerns the quest taken up by young knight Gawain after accepting a duel with the titular Green Knight, summoned to the aged King Arthur’s court by his sister Morgan le Fay, who in a revision by Lowery is also Gawain’s mother. After striking a seemingly fatal blow against the knight he quickly discovers the true price of the duel when he is burdened with the quest to seek out the Green Knight one year later to receive the blow in return.
What would happen in a standard fantasy film would be a quest narrative influenced by the Hero’s Journey popularised by the likes of Joseph Campbell that went onto inform pretty much every fantasy film since. Lowery instead opts for a wandering story more concerned with such aspects of courage, heart and the struggle with accepting one’s fate. Such lofty sounding ideas could still be used as a staging ground for mythic storytelling but again Lowery instead subverts expectations with Gawain wondering aimlessly after setting out on his quest and being suffering such unheroic events as getting robbed by forest dwelling bandits and mistakenly ingesting magic mushrooms whilst hanging out with a fox.
Over what feels like a very ponderous two hours there is just about enough visual style to keep the viewer engaged. Lowery has stated that the likes of fantasy films such as EXCALIBUR and WILLOW were an influence on his script and directing. Narratively you could not get further from Ron Howard and George Lucas’s kids film collaboration, and it lacks the blood and thunder pomp of John Boorman’s still definitive take on cinematic medieval fantasy. Lowery does provide what will no doubt be one of the year’s most visually stylish films with its sights of giants crossing vast valleys, battle scarred fields still strewn with dead bodies and the Green Knight himself who comes across as a more compact and deadly version of Tolkien’s Ents.
As Gawain, Dev Patel again proves himself as one of the most interesting and exciting leading men around with a character who at times comes across as arrogant, cowardly and clueless but the humanity Patel brings to this mythic character shines through particularly in the films final and cheekily ambiguous final scene. Supported by a fine cast including a savage Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman as a ghostly maiden and Sean Harris and Kate Dickie as the king and queen and a host of other faces who do well in humanising such mythic characters, the film suffers an embarrassment of riches in this regard.
Due to be released this year but postponed due to Covid, THE GREEN KNIGHT finally arrives on screens big and small after its scheduled July release was postponed once more due to the virus. So, does David Lowery’s medieval fantasy live up to the anticipation that has grown for it since early last year after its first trailer was released? For myself it feels a bit hit and miss. Its unique visuals notwithstanding the story feels oblique for the sake of it and obscures its true meaning. Epic in style and length there is a small-scale story at its heart which may demand repeat viewings to get to grips with and appreciate. For viewers who are willing to take on such an endeavour good luck on your quest. For those without the patience there’s always that EXCALIBUR Blu-ray on the shelf.