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Movie review: ‘The Green Knight’ provides a masterful meditation on honor, greatness

(Courtesy of Eric Zachanowich)

"The Green Knight"

Directed by David Lowery

A24

July 30

By Ashley Kim

July 31, 2021 5:43 p.m.

King Arthur’s daring nephew is learning that promises are meant to be kept, no matter the cost.

A meditative exploration of oaths and honor, the retelling of the 14th century chivalric romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is fresh and full of beheadings. “The Green Knight” tells the tale of Gawain (Dev Patel) and his heroic journey bookended by deeply symbolic confrontations with the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). With striking visuals and alluring characters, the film is a worthy summer watch.

The color green pervades every frame if not visually then thematically, as it is described as the color of rot and the unnatural but also as the color of the earth from which everything comes and will eventually return to. This idea is best conveyed by the Green Knight himself, a tree-like figure with bark skin and anthropomorphic features whose body embodies the contradictions between humanity and nature. Even after Gawain beheads him with a smooth stroke of the sword by oath, the Green Knight is resilient, picking up his head in laughter.

The oath is this: Gawain must seek out the Green Knight in exactly a year to fulfill the conditions of their Christmas Game so that the knight will return the blow to the head that was dealt to him by Gawain. After a year of drinking around listlessly, Gawain embarks on the journey to fulfill this promise and search for greatness, encountering a scavenger, a lady spirit and a red fox. Divided into almost discrete sequences, each vignette in the story comes together to illuminate the growth of Gawain’s honor and character with charm.

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At the end of Gawain’s long and arduous journey, he finally finds the Green Chapel – a cove full of greenery and life within which he finds the Green Knight, almost indistinguishable from the nature surrounding him. The place is full of golden light and sprouts of life, set in contrast to the bleak desolation he encountered on the road to the chapel. It is here that Gawain finally allows himself to rest, away from the games of the castle and scavengers along the creek, finding communion with the natural.

Patel gives a weighty performance in his interpretation of a journey from a favored, naive nephew of the King to a man who understands the weight of honor, duty and oaths. He carries most of the film on his own, exuding everything from eroticism through one exposed shoulder to desperate fear with only his eyes. The abrupt cut between Gawain as an elderly man with haunted, guilt-ridden eyes to the trembling physicality of a boy on the brink of a life-changing decision exemplifies Patel’s range.

Helmed by director of photography Andrew Droz Palermo, each shot is bold and purposeful; much of the first act is dramatically lit but when frames open up, the grandeur of creation is highlighted in forest greens and muted blue-grey hues. Palermo’s cinematographic choices are complemented by the simultaneously economical and magnificent costume design – as Gawain dons a remarkable golden cloak that spotlights his figure amid long shots of jagged landscapes and bleak forests.

All of the visual elements are pulled together by the auditory – every beat of the film is expertly emphasized by the soundtrack, such as in decisive moments like the one before the Green Knight’s final strike or the encounter with the giants, where a ghostly choir chants in the background, urgent and melancholy. From eerie percussion and drumming winds to sensuous strings, composer Daniel Hart establishes the tone for every scene with his music, never too imposing but always present.

Similarly, the film’s pace is slow but steady, only picking up in the third act as Gawain draws closer to his judgment. However, this unhurried rhythm evokes the flow of the epic poem from which the film is adapted, which is less a standard hero’s journey and more a meditation on the wilderness, the heroic code and Gawain’s understanding of his duty to fulfill his oath.

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All of these elements culminate in a riveting ending sequence that guides viewers in one direction, possibly confusing those well-acquainted with the source material, only to abruptly shift in the other way in a splendid reveal. Patel deftly demonstrates Gawain’s struggle between his desire and his duty that morphs into a version of Gawain’s life where he forsakes his honor for greatness and to save his head. But in the final minutes, despite his mistakes and sins, Gawain makes the decision of a good, heroic man and fulfills his promise.

Through stunning visuals and notable acting, “The Green Knight” is masterful and hits the nail on the head with a decisive swing.

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Ashley Kim
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