A simple premise turns into a mercurial tale as myth envelops reality. Those who feel greatness within their reach forgo goodness entirely, striving to become the legend. Here, this morality tale is infused with surrealist flair to create a haunting vision. The pace is slow, a perfect match for a man’s journey to a fated, and supposedly fatal, destination. Yet, the filmmaking is always propulsive. The camera pushes forward, or characters push towards it as it moves. This is all part of the journey, as open hills give way to forests and back to hills: a looping mission through expected fantastical settings. From castle to castle, wood to wood, cliff to cliff. Each diversion and side attraction becomes its own purpose, taking over the central thrust to deliver overt but engaging themes.
Though there is much to mull over, Lowery’s latest works better as visual splendour than anything else. The production design is outstanding, selling the idea of the mythical, medieval past — a setting that evokes both fantasy and history, often intertwining the two. This is the thrust here, as the subjective nature of legend — the storytelling impulse — starts to blot out what we know to be true, or what we see to be true. Early on, we meet the titular Knight. He arrives at the court and gives out a challenge. A brave person may try to wound him, and receive his axe (alongside the glory of victory) as reward. Yet, that person must come to visit him a year later, where the Green Knight will repay the wound. The same mark left in the same place. An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.
Dev Patel’s Gawain, our protagonist, takes up the mantle. He acts over zealously, aiming for the great — for the legendary — at all points. From this point, we quickly see how the myth takes over. The film retells this story in smart ways, a beautiful little puppet show being one of the most enjoyable. The tale told overtakes the reality shown and soon we are on an epic quest. This journey to meet the Knight again, to have the wound repaid, is the core of the film. Notably, the destination becomes tertiary — this, itself, being a reflection of our ‘hero’s’ lack of want. This quest is also an excuse for stunning visual compositions (with the very occasional than brilliant CG sometimes dulling the immersion) accompanied with a wonderful soundtrack. The fluidity of the music is in concert with the film’s storytelling: the music all coheres to a singular sound yet the melodies oscillate skilfully between the tense, the romantic, the ambient and the dramatic.
The film’s ability to tonally shift while still feeling cohesive is one of its strongest elements. A lot of this is due to how great its key components are. The aforementioned cinematography is expansive and stunning, finding beautiful shapes and arresting images at each turn. It is the performances, also, that pull the film together. Dev Patel is the core, delivering an outstanding performance in a difficult role. He has to maintain an ambiguity as well as remain as an archetypal figure — one we are able to map meaning onto and derive metaphor from — yet he also imbues this character with just enough humanity. The elements of the film exist in a symbolic realm, all is in service of the feel of myth and of evocation, yet the attention to detail from both production and performance (the precision at the heart) give the film a human warmth. It is well balanced, too; the idea of a human drama doesn’t overtake the need for evocative ambiguity yet the mythic heft also doesn’t overwhelm the human.
At points, the film oversteps, wanting to talk at the viewer rather than entice them with possibility. The dialogue is affected, purposefully so, giving the audience enough to propel them forward but retaining an enthralling lack of clarity. The film places the resonant above the clear and this is rewarding. Yet, a few exchanges just explain or state themes or messages. For example, one monologue about the connotations of green is unnecessary in a film where the visuals have already told us this message. This does tie back to the overall theme being satisfying but not revelatory. Perhaps further viewings would reveal more but how it is all told is very much more important than exactly what is being told.
The telling is a joy, though. This is a different feeling film. Yes, the overall gloss and core aesthetic links to the A24 house style we now expect; but, the full acceptance of myth — and how it even seeps into the narrative language — makes The Green Knight refreshing. It is a film of comforting awe, perhaps not too challenging but at each point oddly calming. There is the lovely feeling of a pub yarn, a spiralling tale that entertains throughout — and in which the inconsistencies (here very purposeful) become part of the charm. Oddly, it is perhaps too pleasant at points, where it could be more arresting or challenging; yet, it is still a stunning achievement: a film that goes for something different and that pulls it off with panache.