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Film review: The Green Knight

08 October 2021

Stephen Brown reviews an Arthurian release

Dev Patel as Sir Gawain in The Green Knight

Dev Patel as Sir Gawain in The Green Knight

THE 14th-century Christian allegory Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has once again been adapted for the screen. The Green Knight (Cert.15) takes some liberties with the Arthurian legend, affected perhaps by Game of Thrones fever. In this colour-blind production, Gawain is played by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Personal History of David Copperfield).

When the Green Knight barges into Arthur’s party, the young man naïvely agrees to a “friendly Christmas game”. Can someone lay an axe-blow on this tree-like figure and be prepared next Yuletide to visit the Green Chapel for a reciprocal decapitation? It’s to be a test of the not-so-brave Gawain’s valour as he sets out on a year-long quest, one lacking in heroic battles as he grapples with understandable fears, setbacks, and uncertainties.

Assisted by Andrew Droz Palermo’s enchantingly windblown cinematography, the director David Lowery (The Old Man and the Gun, Pete’s Dragon) sees the film as a conflict between conservative Arthurian Christianity and paganism and nature. It’s a restless Britain (Ireland, actually), desperately in need of reconciliation between earth and humanity. He, himself an atheist, believes that the elemental spirits of the universe will ultimately win over civilisation and, in the process, bring about peace.

In many ways, Lowery is echoing the medieval poem’s questioning of received Christian perceptions. Society as symbolised in Camelot needs to give way to new understandings of ourselves. We live in apocalyptic times, whether the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt in the poem’s era or Covid-19 and climate change in our own. Interestingly, after a prologue asserting that this is a “world fit for all manner of mysteries”, the film’s first words are “Christ is born.” It feels like a cry to wake up, along with the sleeping Gawain; and for our frail flesh to be open to all the wondrous possibilities that incarnation brings. How, indeed, can we devise creed and practices suitably at one with such an astonishing universe?

The imagery of this movie is a feast for the eyes, with more things in heaven and earth than we ever dreamed of. The talking fox is Gawain’s alter ego, who can astutely avert or meet his doom, fall foul of temptations, or shrewdly sidestep them. The Green Knight is just as ambiguous a character: either he is father-like, one who tends and spares us, or displays an almost Christ-like divinity in offering himself to the blade. Gawain’s encounter with St Winifred is a telling moment. While he has lost his way, she has (as the saying goes) lost her head. Both are seeking to restore something essential about themselves.

It is no accident that this is a bewildering film, crammed as it is with the enigmas that make up existence. Lowery’s occasionally ponderous movie, far from a mere paean to paganism, is more akin to the spiritual yearnings found in Mahler’s Song of the Earth or, more panentheistically, the poet Thomas Traherne’s meditations. As such, this is a Gawain standing on the threshold of a new theological age.

In cinemas and on Amazon Prime Video

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