Why do the myths of King Arthur retain such power? Because under the arcane text and plate mail, they are stories of human fallibility. We recognize ourselves, not in velvet garb and jousts, but in how the Court of Camelot represents an aspiration of doing the right thing. And so it is in The Green Knight, the breathtaking and enigmatic new version of the tales by Texas director David Lowery.
The immediately identifiable characters and elements of the mythology are present and immediately identifiable, but the names Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, and Excalibur are never mentioned. Similarly, those with deeper knowledge will recognize the themes with which writer/director Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) plays. Lowery’s version works because, like Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson’s rewriting of L.A. Confidential, it captures the nature and meaning of the story rather than getting caught up in individual events or plot beats. Gawain, after all, is about a knight who does not understand what it really means to be a knight. Lowery’s version can be rich with ambiguity and obfuscation, even a certain narrative obtuseness, because the path of his quest is so clear.
Lowery also grasps what seem like contradictory forces within Arthurian mythology. It is an abstraction, the result of the intermingling of many roots that become one tree with many branches. Lowery’s decision to adapt the most famous 14th century iteration of the story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, opens him up to all those complexities. The chivalric codes were inherently Christian, but the mythic pool from which it draws life is rich with paganism, magic, witchcraft, and folklore. Jade Healy’s production design, the art decoration by Christine McDonagh and David Pink, Jenny Oman’s set decoration, and Malgosia Turzanska’s costumes create a unique fantastical Middle Ages, one in which arcane sorcery can share a scene with pilgrim badges.
Those are what cover the gown of the unnamed queen (Dickie) when she and the king (Harris) invite the dissolute young Gawain (Patel) to sit with them at the head of the Round Table for the Christmas feast. In the source poem, Gawain is a knight with flaws that are revealed by his quest: Here, he is not yet knighted but still welcome as the king’s nephew, even if he is somewhat of a stranger due to the strained relationship with his mother, the king’s sister (Choudhury). This Gawain is a drinker, wasting his days in brothels, bound by something like love to Essel (Vikander). Even if he is knighted, it will be by shortcuts, which is why only he can be, must be, the one to meet the challenge of the mysterious Green Knight (Ineson). The moss-encrusted figure interrupts the Christmas feast with a challenge: a blow for a blow, axe strike for axe strike. Gawain strikes off his head, a cut insufficient to level the fantastical creature who rises and challenges the knave to meet him a year hence in the Green Chapel, where the favor of beheading will be returned.
This is where Lowery truly grasps the nature of the Gawain story – and it is truly a story, with asides, chapters, narration, even puppet shows. It is episodic, mystical, a fable, and a portrait of flaws. Just because Gawain sets off for the Green Chapel, that doesn’t mean he intends to fulfill his oath; so the quest becomes about how he will carry the giant axe his challenger left behind, and the bigger repercussions. This is never just about Gawain, but about power and responsibility: Lowery’s Albion is on a cusp between construction and corruption, and Gawain’s personal choices set the whole land’s future path. Like L.A. Confidential, Lowery holds the truth of the text so close he can make major structural changes that may mean little to those new to the story but could be off-putting to those who know the text. Instead, it’s like the decision to film in the wilds of rural Ireland rather than in England: The locations are so spiritually close to the rugged terrain around the Three Shires Head area, where the counties of Cheshire, Staffordshire, and Derbyshire (from where the author of the original text is agreed to have hailed) meet, that it feels right. Most importantly, Patel’s Gawain may not be the noblest of the noble, but he captures what is essential: the humbling, the learned humility, the willingness to self-sacrifice and stand by the chivalric code to which he aspires.
Vitally, Lowery has retained the essential Britishness of the text. The only real modernization is a beautiful addition: having Patel, the child of Kenyan-born Indian parents, play one of the key figures in a folktale pivotal to British cultural identity. At a time when Britain is imploding through insularity, this simple act of casting reopens a door. The Arthurian myths remain because we come to them, not because we reshape them, and they are open to all. In this realization, The Green Knight is the stuff of pure mythos.
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