Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 31, 2021 9:08 pm 
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A medieval classic with some changes

It's nice that a director as original and risk-taking as David Lowery found it worthwhile to adapt a great, but obscure, Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem is a stunning masterpiece with moods and moments you won't find anywhere else in literature. Don't get the idea it's just another chivalric coming-of-age knights-of-the Round Table tale; it's unique. Did Lowery capture it? Not quite. But that's a difficult task and at least he starts us on a plunge into it led by the immensely appealing Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, the young knight (or proto-knight?), King Arthur's untried, unproven nephew, who takes on a deathly challenge out of youthful derring-do and fails the ultimate journey-quest of his life but is nonetheless forgiven.

The poem is more forgiving and wittier than Lowery's version. There's a lot of laughter in it too; but in this movie all we hear is The Green Knight's loud, mocking guffaw ending his first appearance. The appearance of the Green Knight is one of the most stunning moments in medieval English literature. He is huge, with a virtual cape of long hair, riding a horse, and everything, head to toe to spur, horse and all accoutrements included, is bright green. It is this lurid color that shocks and paralyzes King Arthur's knights. It's stranger than strange. Everything green. But for reasons of his own Lowery has made the strange visitor more of a giant charred stump of a monster-man. In the poem, the green knight is beautiful, a richly attired though frightening figure.

Notably, since it's Christmas, it's a festive day and a festive scene in the court. And with a strange paradox, the scary green color too is Christmassy. So is the blood that flows red from his neck when Gawain chops it off: green and red, Christmas colors. This is a game (also festive, partly a scary lark): whoever takes the challenge can take a chop at the strange visitor, but in return must submit to a return blow at the Green Chapel a year from this day. Can it really be true? Or is it a Christmas blague? In the poem, after the Green Knight's head's off, they kick it around a while, like a soccer ball.

Everything is dark and gloomy in Lowery's movie and this look, especially in the big opening Green Knight sequence, is surprising. It makes one wonder if the filmmaker thinks the Middle Ages really means the "Dark Ages" in a literal sense, so that everything must be clothed in semi-darkness. Many of the film's scenes are that way (not all). I thought of the Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal - certainly a dark view of the medieval world and Huizinga's "violent tenor of life:" but that image is a contrasty black and white that gleams.

Take a look at one of the great medieval illuminated manuscripts, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and you will see scenes of bright and glowing color that are typical of how things were visualized at this time. The images of Les Très Riches Heures are also, typically for the time, represented as a jumble of busy scenes on top of scenes with very little subordination. This is also different from The Green Knight, which tends to highlight a few figures and hide most of the rest in darkness. This visual style seems oddest in the court scene.

But really we are always looking at Dev Patel. I have no trouble buying him as a noble striver and an action hero. He is an actor with panache, physical prowess and sexiness and a touch of lingering goofiness as well ever since his debut in "Skins" (a series I loved). He has always been a champion athlete in martial arts, physically impressive, and now a hottie among internet followers. I just hoped people wouldn't think of Dev's action-hero disaster The Last Airbender. But that was a while ago and judging by Green Knight's current Metascore of 84%, a raft of very reputable reviewers have been enthusiastic about this movie. However, as happens with literary adaptations more often than not, I have some reservations. Some big ones, actually. That said, this is an intense fantasy adventure that takes us to some haunting places. If I'm rather disappointed by the Green Knight himself, Sir Gawain (Patel)'s challenger/nemesis, it was satisfying to see Barry Keoghan appear as the taunting, bad-helper Scavenger. Alicia Vikander plays two roles and it's not just a stunt.

I'm not sure Keoghan represents an actual character in the poem source. But it started to seem Lowery was most at home when he was riffing or inventing. Does the poem have a talking fox? If so, is it one that follows Gawain around on the moors like a pet? Did the Gawain in the poem get drunk at a whorehouse the night before the court Christmas celebration?

In the poem, the big section of the journey, the biggest test on the way to the Green Chapel, comes when Gawain is a guest at a castle where day after day his host goes out hunting for different game, leaving his beautiful wife to repeatedly tempt him. If this happens in the movie I must have dozed off and missed it. Lowery's film provides Gawain with all sorts of challenges. Someone in a review describes the journey as "hypnotic." It seems to have a slow, uneven rhythm.

Lowery's version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is sui generis. One can't pin him down on it too much. There are numerous good moments, and a rough outline of the story-poem is provided in an original way. My only disappointment is the darkness - and a Green Knight who isn't bright green but some sort of eco-sensitive autumnal critter not as scary or as strange, taunting, and inexplicable as the terrifying, jovial creature in the poem.

Metacritic shows that some of our best critics have written raves of this film and I've read a lot of them, like a lit grad student pouring over footnotes to a classic. A.O. Scott and Justin Chang sound quite excited and say smart things; my favorite of the listed reviews, though,may be the one by Keith Watson for Slate which though giving only a 62.5% rating, cares enough to show in more specific detail than most how Lowery's feature specifically alters and modernizes the mystery of the enduringly strange original.

The Green Knight, 130 mins., opened in the US Jul. 30, 2021. Metascore: 84%. The language of the original poem (anonymous, 1360-1400) is in a northern dialect of Middle English much harder than Chaucer, but the Burton Raffel translation (available in PDF files online) is fine; Simon Armitage’s newer one is said to be excellent too.


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