Tuesday, 28 September 2021

The Green Knight

The Britain seen in David Lowery's The Green Knight is a blighted place, a rolling crime scene spotted with extant battles and restless ghosts - neither of which seem to register with the country's mouldering monarchy. Civilisation - or perhaps, more accurately, the rigid adherence to the myth of Christ as a pre-packaged answer to the mystery of human redemption - is depicted here as a grandiose fantasy that renders Kings and Queens sickly and sterile. This court of Camelot have sealed themselves up in their high towers; a self-satisfied mob presiding over victories that have long since faded into memory. Sean Harris' King Arthur and Kate Dickie's Queen Guinevere are pale and decrepit, the Pendragon royalty as heirless, intertwined, relics that have far outlived their usefulness to legend. Both rulers are photographed as if moments away from passing, their thinning blood pooling around glassy eyes and filthy mouths as they prod the court's youth towards ruin. 

Rather than a storied knight, Dev Patel's Gawain is a listless nephew, the court wannabe who glumly informs a pleading uncle that he has took part in no great adventures and therefore has no stories to tell. Either born too late or held at a discreet distance, this Gawain exists in the space between two aspects of his family. Unfettered by regal decorum or expectation, Gawain is therefore allowed to consort with Alicia Vikander's brothel worker, Essel. On one side sit his Aunt and Uncle - the Queen and King - two mummies hurtling into their dotage. On the other, his mother, Sarita Choudhury's Morgan le Fay, a sorceress attended by children who barely age. Although le Fay only speaks a handful of times, The Green Knight is underpinned by her ambition - her desire - to see her son elevated to a resplendent, Kingly, status. The coming of the supernatural woodsman is her doing, the Green Knight answering a letter written by le Fey during a magical rite. His summoning facilitates the situation by which le Fay hopes Gawain can make some sort of mark on this dynasty. 

On Christmas Day the Green Knight barges into Arthur's hall, interrupting the icy festivities to present a holly branch and a challenge to the round table: if anyone can land a blow on his person they will win his axe but, in a year's time, the strike will be returned. Ralph Ineson's Green Knight is massive and monstrous, his body a knot of animated bark and root. When he moves we hear the strain and crack of branches, as if some massive oak is attempting to stand; his voice is a growl, Ineson sinking into the Earth to emit a note of reverberating bass. Musically, this Knight is the deathless land issuing a direct challenge to its temporary rulers, daring them to attempt to make a mark upon it. No Camelot Knight dares to meet his green gaze so the role of participant in this game falls to the eager, untitled, Gawain. Arthur hands his nephew the sword Excalibur and urges the much younger man on. Rather than attack though, Green Knight bares his neck, inviting Gawain to strike. He does so, beheading this invader and, presumably, rendering the foreboding deal null. Before Gawain can bask in his newfound glory though the Green Knight's body stands, snatches up his cackling head, then reminds Gawain of the deal he has struck and the payment that is now expected. 

Gawain instantly enters into popular myth, his deeds inflated by drunken, hyperbolic, repetition then transformed into a ghastly puppet show in the Punch and Judy vein. Although peacetime famous, the pact with the Green Knight has done nothing for Gawain's station. He hasn't been knighted; his days and nights are still spent outside the court, feasting and brawling amongst the kingdom's common folk. As winter approaches King Arthur reminds an increasingly anxious Gawain that he must keep his promise to the Green Knight. A pall lingers over this meeting, not just in Gawain's obvious distress but in the insinuation that an unseen entreaty from le Fay has been rebuffed by her brother - it's not enough for the King that Gawain has taken this supernatural creature's head, he must also offer his in return. Neither a knight, nor a prince for that matter, le Fay's son has still not been allowed the status of Arthur's heir. He is to earn his place or die in the effort. 

There's a certain cruelty in how this Arthur interacts with Gawain. The King's favour is both fleeting and loaded, a needling sense of expectation heaped upon a person who, quite apparently, hasn't been adequately prepared for these moments. In terms of courtly hierarchy, Gawain seems to be the spare, a person bred purely to compliment a legitimate child who either died before this story commences or was never actually born at all. Typically attributed to the King and Queen of Orkney - Morgause, an estranged half-sister of Arthur's - Patel's Gawain is here the son of a different sister, the enchantress Morgan le Fay. John Boorman's adaptation of the Arthurian legends, Excalibur, made a similar decision regarding the King's sisters, rolling the two characters into one. Helen Mirren's Morgana was another schemer looking to put her child on Camelot's throne. In that film her son, Mordred, is explicitly the offspring of Morgana and Arthur, conceived during the King's years long delirium. In Lowery's film no mention is made of a father. No explicit, stated, link to Arthur save their shared resemblance to Byzantine portrayals of Christ - the drawn face; stern expression; and the long, slender, nose. 

Gawain's quest is rambling and episodic, the inexperienced man consistently made to contend with his own physical and mental limits. He begins his journey affecting the behaviour of a ranging, romantic, adventurer. This Gawain is quickly bamboozled by an even younger man, Barry Keoghan's Scavenger, who disarms the loaded traveller by appealing to a rank that Gawain does not hold. Like Robin Hood, this Scavenger preys on the rich and conceited, attacking travellers as they journey through thick woodland, liberating their possessions for redistribution. Bound and gagged, Gawain receives a vision of himself as a sunken collection of bones, a horror that spurs him to action, hurling his bound body along the forest floor in search of a blade to sever his constraints. As he delves deeper into the Britain's wilds, Gawain encounters the ghost of a murdered Welsh Saint and a Lord with a face elsewhere rendered in tapestry. While Arthur and his Kingdom venerate a Palestinian prophet martyred by the Romans, Gawain - after greedily gobbling up some wild mushrooms - consorts with deities that have sprung from this isle: forest spirits that speak with the voice of his mother, a tribe of roaming giants and, finally, the Green Knight himself. 

Eventually making his way to the Green Chapel, Gawain encounters the slumbering Green Knight. Once awake, the creaking woodsman - portrayed in this setting as a curious mix of Father Christmas and the Devil - hurries, as agreed, to deprive his visitor of his head. Reluctant to give his life up so easily, Gawain attempts to flee. It's here that Lowery's film lifts a conceit from Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ (not to mention Martin Scorsese's filmed adaptation), allowing the sacrificial lamb to experience the life he believes he might go on to live. Whereas Scorsese's film depicts a certain amount of human contentment before the rot sets in, Gawain's yuletide present is a lifetime lived in minutes; experiences and events overlapping into one long, thundering, march of despair. Gawain sees his future as a sleepwalker King, finally knighted moments before Arthur himself passes away. Entrusted a kingdom, Gawain allows the hesitancy and indecision that marked his final encounter with the Green Knight to define his reign. Gawain's second vision lingers on images of his mother, quietly aghast at her child's repeated failures. Her disappointment is compounded by decisions rooted in Gawain's inflexible idea of monarchy - isolation and brutal attempts at propriety track, neatly, into a bone-deep despondency. 

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