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The Green Knight – Enjoyable but disjointed Psychedelia

If you asked me, right after I watched it, what The Green Knight was about I’d probably have scratched my head and said: “I’m not quite sure”. I know that it’s based on a poem written in the 14th century, about King Arthur’s young knight and nephew, rising to a brave and challenging task, falling into a trap and then learning about himself.

Maybe that makes it about honour and folly, the life choices we make, why we make them, and the repercussions that can follow. If someone asked me if I enjoyed it right after I watched it, I’d do a bit more head scratching and say: “I think so?” Ask me after a few days mulling it over in the subconscious, I would definitely say I did.

One of the great movie release posters for The Green Knight
One of the great movie release posters for The Green Knight

If you’re looking for a movie that makes you feel like you’ve microdosed your way through a young adult modern fairy tale, I recommend you take a shot at David Lowery’s  “The Green Knight. “ Available for rent through Amazon.

It is part Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, part Monty Python, part King Arthur (the Guy Ritchie version not the Antoine Fuqua version). Wikipedia says that “Scholars have puzzled over the Green Knights symbolism since the discovery of the poem, and the movie certainly achieves this too.

Maybe that puzzlement is what drew Lowery in to try his hand at telling this story; something so intriguing and open to interpretation it was an opportunity for his personal creative exploration. What we have is a movie infused with fairy tale fables, psychedelic visuals, a cracking cast and some well executed, yet all too brief visual effects. It’s touted as: “A non traditional adventure movie”. That description probably illustrates the confusion and difficulty in making it a cohesive viewing cinema experience. 

When it comes to unconventional rising stars The Green Knight features some of the most interesting names of the past few years. The amorous Dev Patel, plays Gawain, the latest take on the classic anti-hero – part unassumingly brave Kingsman, part piss head brothel creeper. I keep thinking back to an especially amusing scene (I’m sure you’ll spot it) where he simultaneously looked a lot and nothing like how his portrait was painted. 

Dev Patel as Gawain
Dev Patel as Gawain

Given the substantial and far reaching popularity of characters he’s played in the past (Life of Pi, Lion etc) I can’t help but feel his characters are starting to become more than slightly one dimensional. It’s hard to separate his look and acting from his blockbusters. Perhaps he has reached the stage where he’s now a serious victim of typecasting, regardless of what the role calls for. I’ve been a fan of his since his breakout role as Anwar in the teenage-written, acclaimed TV series Skins where he played a fumbling, bumbling, awkward character from the outset: a role that was partly based on Patel’s real life personality. But as he’s matured, his on-screen characters have matured at the same pace.

The rest of the casting call is distinct, complementing the weird offbeat pacing of the film. Dev Patel’s supporting characters are mainly unscrupulous and not particularly likeable for an audience.  Sean Harris (Mission Impossible, Prometheus, Southcliffe) and Kate Dickie (The Witch, Prometheus) play a version of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, who appear as though they both have been dosed up on fentanyl. I am a big fan of Sean Harris’ demeanour, maybe it’s the covert cynic in me but I really appreciate how he plays a reserved, wretched character.

There is a reference towards the legendary Excalibur sword early on in the film, but you would miss it unless you were paying close attention. Swords and weaponry aren’t a huge part of this adventure film. The Green Knight’s Axe, which is what Gawain carries throughout his entire adventure, is more symbolic than anything else. 

Then we have Joel Edgerton who’s role was rather under utilised (he is an A-lister isn’t he?). Perhaps this is understandable given he seemed a little bit out of place given the general edgy vibe of the other characters. The rest of the cast all seem a little bit rough around the edges, and I like how they fit into the disjointed elemental way the story has been told, with ragged characterisation and varied fantastical colour grading to match. Joel Edgerton is still just your token Aussie larrikin, a role he seems to thrive on in Hollywood.

I read the poem after watching the film, and I think David Lowery has done it justice. I admire his aspiration. He has broken up his film into fantasy-like segments with chaptered titling throughout; it’s a great interpretation and definitely feels reminiscent of flipping through a children’s fairy tale picture book.

It is definitely a visually captivating film. I reveled in the wide cinematic single takes and numerous styles of composition, utilising as much of the landscape in the narrative driven areas with steadicam work following the characters footsteps. Then the use of varied montage, long shots to portray the distance of the journey. The film was shot entirely in Ireland between March and May 2019 and I must say, having been to Ireland many times (I did a family tour of the Game of Thrones’ sites before they became hot tourism property) cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (You’re Next, A Teacher) ), did full justice to the amazing scenery.

Special effects wise, I really appreciated some of the elements they included. The fox was effectively done and there is a scene with some humongous giants. The costuming and makeup by Ralph Ineson as the Green Knight, was superb. Though I just wanted to see more of his type of character, and more characters like him. My taste for high fantasy runs deep and I love the epic vibe of heavily costumed characters. But it’s clear they didn’t have the budget to satisfy what I thought should and could have been.

Ralph Ineson as The Green Knight
Ralph Ineson as The Green Knight

The scavenger, played by Barry Keoghan, was the type of character who creates anxiety the moment you meet him. Barry always does a great job in presenting as a smarmy little stinker in all his roles. Maybe he’s one of those actors who doesn’t really need to act? Just kidding Barry.

Overall it felt a bit disjointed, it didn’t traverse through the scenes as effectively as a good adventure story should: the lead character just seems to stumble about the land encountering characters and sort of bluster through his quests towards the Green Chapel. Whether that is a symptom of the editing style or not, I’ll leave that to you to decide. I discovered after watching that the director was unhappy with the original cut and spent 6 months recutting it. Clearly he had a vision he had to see through but that leaves it open to interpretation because it was refreshing to watch. This is definitely the type of movie that I will appreciate more on a second viewing where I can unlock and learn more about the metaphors and symbolism that the director was trying to achieve/purvey. 

Colour Grading and lighting elements reminded me of movies like Hero and The Fall. Which means a really great use of colours to evoke emotion and seasonal elements to the scene. Perhaps a little over done when he dives into the lake, here especially you’ll see why I felt like it was a bit hallucinogenic overall. 

My thinking is that transposing an ancient poem like “The Green Knight” into a feature film just leaves so much room for interpretation and creativity. So, it was a refreshing experience when you look at the hero/adventure films that have been released of late. Rather than just the director looking to bash out another comic book movie for a mass market. Those types of movies just aren’t hitting the appeal for me that they did, Black Widow anyone?

Behind the scenes of The Green Knight
Behind the scenes of The Green Knight – Courtesy of Eric Zachanowich/A24 Films

The film was shot on Arri Alexa 65 with Arri Prime DNA Lenses. Cream of the crop of filmmaking tools. Essential, if you ask me. The look of Arri Alexa is just what people associate with high-end cinema, whether they know it or not. It just puts out the sexiest pixels.

Transitions and opening and closing of individual scenes looked disjointed to me. They seemed to hurry through the sub-plots, or perhaps that was on purpose as Gawain’s character didn’t seem to know what he was meant to be doing throughout the movie. (Though the amazing was a star in its own right). The message seemed to be that he simply had to get to the Green Chapel to seal the deal.

I found myself wondering, why is Arthur and his queen on drugs? Why doesn’t Gawain’s mother help him, and wasn’t she the one who summoned his conflict? What is the real message in this film, what is the symbolism of the puppetry? Then I re-read the poem, and I was still left wondering. It’s all purposefully ambiguous and at the end of the day I don’t mind that. I don’t want to be force fed plot lines and stories. I like to think about what they were trying to achieve and why they went about it the way they did. Finally, and once again, it is one of those movies that will just require another viewing to dig deeper into the intended message.

7.5 out of 10 stars.

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