the green knight/axe

The Green Knight

A Journey Into Myths and Dreams.

the green knight/axe
The Green Knight

Title: The Green Knight
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery (screenplay)
Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton

In his court with his knights sits the King with his Queen. It is Christmas, and it is time for celebrations. The King has many a quest and adventure behind him. Many victories and tragedies. But now, he is old and frail, and his days of quest and battle are over.

What the King wants most of all from his knights on this Christmas day is a tale of heroism, courage, and myth. But before anyone can answer, the doors fly open, and a mysterious knight with the skin of living bark comes riding into the hall.

The newcomer asks the court to indulge him in a Christmas game: a strike for a strike. The one who steps forward can strike the mysterious knight in any way he chooses. But one year later, the strike will be returned in the same manner as it was given.

Only the young squire Gawain, not yet a knight and eager to prove his courage, steps forward. With one strike from the King’s sword, he decapitates the mysterious newcomer. But to the shock and awe of the assembled court, the body picks up the head and tells Gawain to meet him one year hence in the Green Chapel to have the strike returned. He then rides out into the night, head in hand, laughing.  

This is the start of the epic medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story, which is considered one the most important in the Arthurian legends, was written sometime in the late 14th century. Here we follow the young knight, Sir Gawain, on his quest through a series of trials and temptations to finally face the Green Knight.

The Green Knight in the King’s hall

This is not the first time that this classic medieval poem has been adapted to the screen. I won’t blame you for not having heard of the earlier attempts, but in 1984 the world was subjected to the awkward and embarrassing Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It should be said that the cast was strong, with a handful of well-known 80s actors in some of the roles: Peter Cushing, John Rhys-Davies, Miles O’Keeffe, and even the one and only Sean Connery in the role as the Green Knight.

But even this didn’t help this adaptation, and one critic at the time wrote that the production value of this embarrassing film made even Monty Python and the Holy Grail look like an epic. And they used coconuts for horses!

Luckily, this new adaptation of the classic medieval poem is something completely different. The American director David Lowery gives us what can almost be described as an arthouse version of Gawain’s journey toward the Green Chapel and a certain fate. Dev Patel plays the role of Gawain amazingly and easily invites us into the mind of his character. The film is a dreamlike experience, moving slowly and often with little dialogue, building towards an unexpected climax.

It is a coming-of-age story and a hero’s journey with little in the ways of battle and bloodshed. The more Gawain travels, the more we get the sense that he is walking into a dream. The characters he meets on his way are also very interesting, archetypes in their own way; The Lord and Lady, central to the story, are played by Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander. Sarita Choudhury plays Gawain’s mother and sister to the King, who is himself played by Sean Harris. Erin Kellyman plays the ghost of a saint, and behind layers and layers of makeup, we find Ralph Ineson as the Green Knight.

Dev Patel as Gawain

So let me make one thing clear: The Green Knight is not the traditional fantasy flick with swordfights, sinister bad guys, and monsters. There are no dragons to be found here, nor are there huge battles. Rather, it is an introspective film about one man’s journey to overcome his doubts and face his destiny. And his greatest opponent is most often himself.

The shots are long and often with very little in the ways of dialogue. The quiet follows Gawain into a dreamlike journey. Time and thoughts flow strangely around Gawain, and there are ruminations about mortality and temptation. Gawain is drawn towards a certain fate but also pulled backward towards an uncertain safety. Everything is masterfully captured in what often feels like a living painting of mystery, symbolism, and nature.

The Green Knight is a much-needed gasp of freshness in a world where films have become a constant barrage of loud action in quick cuts. David Lowery takes us on a dreamlike journey into one of the most well-known stories of Arthurian legend. The Green Knight can be interpreted in many ways, but one thing is certain: This is mastercraft level of storytelling and a film I won’t forget anytime soon!

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