The Green Knight
Part 1, minimal spoilers
Parents, be careful about this one. If you’re expecting a sword-and-sorcery film, forget it. If you want the 1981 movie with its sex and violence, forget that, too.
There is sex and violence. Almost all of it takes place off-screen. There are some CGI giant breasts and Dev Patel’s bottom and that’s it. We see the consequences of the violence—corpses, skeletons, severed heads—but almost none of the action of it. We see the consequences of sex—the babies, swollen bellies, and semen—but little of the act of it.
This isn’t cute, simple and encapsulated (go to the Disney cartoon if that’s what you need). This isn’t an epic battle (go to the 1981 movie for that).
For the average movie-goer, this might be entirely too art-house. I’m glad I left my family at home; they’d have only complained it was boring.
It was far from boring, though, if you can attend to complex plot points and emotional cues.
The film comes from Studio A24, which made Midsommar and Hereditary. I wasn’t aware of this sitting in the theater, and none of the credits hinted that way. Smarter people than me might find specific people in both productions, but I didn’t recognize any. But I knew from seeing it.
The camera pans through strange views, looking at irrelevant things, or focused on a thing you don’t need to see with a thing you do need to see barely in focus nearby. In a strange opening, a woman mounts a horse and rides off with a building on fire, then the camera backs through a window to find Gawain waking on Christmas morning, none of the outside scene ever explained overtly.
Music swells with drama over barren landscapes with nothing moving. The camera view tips upside down for no apparent reason.
In short, it looks very much like an A24 movie. Sounds it, too.
Oh, also, there are a lot of beheadings and references to beheadings, so someone from A24 worked on both Hereditary and this. It can’t be a coincidence. Anyway.
It DOES feel a bit Python? With the weird titles in hard to read script?
The actors are quirky. I think they hint at a Welsh setting. Again, smarter people than me can make something of that. I don’t know the Arthur cycles well, just well enough to know the Welsh stories are far different from later versions. If you don’t like POC in a thing set in Britain, just fuck off right now, I don’t need to hear from you. And if you DO know the Arthur cycles, also fuck off, but more kindly—I’d love to read your review on your page.
Which is all preface to this: Del Patel is amazing and wonderful, perfect for the version of Gawain written and portrayed here. I love him.
Since we’re on diversity, there is a little bit of maybe gay-baiting? No, it’s gay-baiting dressed up in ambiguity to be deniable. Probably.
Part 2: Spoilers
If you’ve not seen the thing and plan to, stop here.
OK. Gawain wakes up Christmas morning. It’s evident he’s not a knightly sort of fellow. He isn’t a knight yet but aims to be. Trouble is, he sleeps in a brothel, drinks all night, and isn’t very courageous. Arthur thinks the world of him but from a distance; there’s some relationship problem with his sister, whose son Gawain is (making him Arthur’s nephew and, in this version of the story, heir).
He goes to mass, dragged there by his prostitute girlfriend. Then he goes to a dinner party with his uncle the King, and the Knights of the Round Table.
The Green Knight crashes the party. There’s some spellcasting, some magic play, making it seem maybe Gawain’s mother and her coven created the Green Knight… but that’s pretty ambiguous. There are also later hints he’s Merlin, as are all the characters Gawain later encounters.
The Green Knight throws down a challenge, a simple game of chivalry: Any comer can try to land a blow on him if, in one year, they come to his Green Chapel and allow him to return the same blow in the manner of his choosing.
The Round Table knights want none of it. Arthur is too old. So Gawain steps up.
The Green Knight dismounts his gigantic horse, kneels, and bares his neck. The film could be over at this point. This is a contest of courtly manners; Gawain could simply kiss the Green Knight’s cheek. Blow landed, I’ll be around for my peck in a year, thanks-bye. But Gawain beheads him.
So he lives the next rapid year knowing he’ll have to kneel for the Green Knight.
Much of the film is his travels to the north seeking his destiny. He encounters spirits, giants, highwaymen, knights and their ladies, an elderly woman with a bandage over her eyes who is never explained, and a talking fox. It’s possible that all of them are Merlin, offering tests of courage and chivalry. A boy, traumatized by a field of bodies including his brothers, offers directions. Gawain thanks him and sets off. The boy presses for a reward; Gawain offers him nothing, and then a copper coin. This appears a failed test of generosity or empathy. Later, he meets a spirit, a girl murdered by a lord. She wants something back from the bottom of a spring. Gawain wonders what he would get in return for such a deed, and she berates him. Another failed test of chivalry.
Later, in a magical manor house full of anachronisms, and featuring a wonderful monologue from Alicia Vikander, Gawain meets a knight who knows him but he doesn’t know. The knight presses him on questions of honor. Why ride to meet this destiny? You can only die. Is it that important? Is that all that you want? Does all your honor hang on this one deed?
He doesn’t go as far as Falstaff in Henry IV*. Being a knight himself, he knows there is value in honor, and uses that to try to trick Gawain out of a thing he carries.
Anyway. He arrives at the Green Chapel fresh from being gay-baited by the strange knight. He’s early, so he sits vigil until the next dawn. The Green Knight awakes. They converse, then it’s blow-returning time.
So at this point, Gawain has failed like 12 tests of basic decency arguably set by Merlin in various guises. Before that, he’s failed some others with no prompting. And here’s the Green Knight ready to lop off his head with a gigantic axe.
Gawain can’t do it. He flinches and cries.
This is his Dostoevsky moment. Famously, Fyodor Dostoevsky was convicted of sedition and sentenced to die. He stood in a field with other convicts, soldiers before them loading weapons and aiming at them. He was reprieved at the last moment and sent to the gulag instead. This moment changed Dostoevsky forever.
I’ll not say more about the end of the film. Whether it ultimately satisfies is a matter of taste.
It’s never clear whether Gawain is a good man or not. In stories this old, people live or die by clever tricks and honor is never objective or constant. It’s never clear whether he’s a coward. He’s at least brave to a point. No super-human, no saint, no prayerful celibate. In the end, he has a decision. He makes it, lives with it, walks across Britain in its name, and then has to go one more step to carry it through.
Much of the settings, camera work, and even story are pretty surrealist, as expected from A24. I happen to love surrealism to a point, so your mileage may vary.
I think this is a worthy entry into the canon of Arthurian legend, with some deep lessons for us to consider here in modernity. Not the least of which is this: If you can't keep your word--tell the truth, honor a contract--then are you fit to lead? What happens to your nation? And: If you could protect yourself from all harm, would you? Should you?
If you see it, let me know what you think. Unless you’re a racist, in which case, again, just fuck off.
*”‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.”
Fallstaff, Henry IV part 1