Perfidious altruism abounds in The Green Knight

Director: David Lowery Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, Sarita Choudhury, Joel Edgerton, Barry Keoghan Running Time: 130 minutes

‘The noble knight’ may be one of the original and best exercises in brand management, a close association forged between valour and jobs for the boys that may not really have reflected reality. Knights may have had a code alright, so do pirates. But even, or especially, when we’re telling myths and legends, we can’t help but tell on ourselves.

The original poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of a servant of the realm who gets puffed up by his own importance, acts rashly and violently and is deceitful in his efforts to be honorable. When his dishonesty is revealed, Gawain is declared the most blameless knight in all the land and all the other knights wear a symbol of his adventure as a reminder to always be honest. Sounds a bit like Gawain was “one bad apple” that inspired some spurious reforms to me, and what’s interesting about David Lowery’s take on the legend is the ways in which it builds the gap between the stories that we tell and the cold, harsh reality, and how Dev Patel’s Gawain is used to explore the ways that actually, All Knights Are Bastards.

Gawain is a layabout knight, found snoozing in a brothel on Christmas morning. Stringing along lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) and spoofing to mother Morgan (Sarita Choudhury) about being at church, already we see the young man having notions of who he ought to be and in inability to face up to who he is. An opportunity for Gawain to find his honour and distinguish himself emerges when King Arthur’s court is interrupted by the Green Knight, an ethereal, organic, enormous tree man summoned by the magic of the lad’s own mother. With the blustering booming voice of Ralph Ineson, the Green Knight offers the court a Christmas game: any knight able to land a blow on him will win his big green axe but must travel to his Green Chapel the following Christmas and receive an equal blow in return. Essentially wanting to look cool in front of King Arthur (a frail Sean Harris), Gawain steps up and chops off his opponents head. Which promptly starts laughing. See you next year kiddo.

Does Gawain take up his quest the following year out of honour, or less noble motives, obligation, fear of losing face, entitlement? How he conducts himself in the episodic adventures that follow is revealing. Patel looks the part of a hero, strong, imposing and beautiful, but he also has a lot going on under that facade. When things are going wrong, there’s desperation, dismissiveness, doubt. It’s a exciting and unusual performance because a standard heroes journey plays out, a mix of classic myth and modern blockbuster spectacle, all built around a lead character leading the way out of nothing much more than the belief that this is his story to star in.

The pacing and presentation by Lowery is evocative and effective, an eery air that feels like there’s always something ominous lurking over proceedings, which slowly reveals itself to be our Knight’s inadequacies. From the battlefield flim-flam act of Barry Keoghan, to the tense house of Lord Joel Edgerton and Lady Vikander, what seems like a random mash of stories pulls together into a throughline of deception and denial, a Knight Behaving Badly, or at least Behaving Nobly But For Bad Reasons. From crediting ‘Anonymous’ in on-screen titles, through to a bit of Breaking Dawn esque speculation, The Green Knight plays up its artifice early and often. It evokes the feeling of protesting too much, to quote further down the line of English lit. If our noble knights are so keen to insist on their own bravery, to the point of fantasy, what is really going on that they are hoping to obscure? Spookily, slowly and surely, Gawain’s self-mythologising unravels him, leaving the real man laid bare on the chopping block. As much Bad Lieutenant as it is Legend, this entertaining fantasy reveals some very real truths.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

About Luke Dunne

Luke is a writer, film addict and Dublin native who loves how much there is for film fans in his home county. A former writer for FilmFixx and the Freakin' Awesome Network, he founded Film In Dublin to pursue his dual dreams of writing about film and never sleeping ever again.

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