Nearly everything in David Lowery’s The Green Knight is bound up in circles. The painted disc in the puppeteer’s booth reflecting the march of the seasons, fisheye shots of a forest verge in which the trees form a rounded curtain wall against the outside world, the solar crowns of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), and of course the mythical Round Table itself. Perhaps most pertinent is the charmed velvet sash worn by Gawain (Dev Patel) throughout most of his adventures, a symbol both of the umbilical cord which once bound him to its first giver — his mother, Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) — and of the ultimately infantile desire for immortality and safety. It’s human nature to desire the security of a closed loop, the predictable, the prosaic. As Gawain says when questioned as to the purpose of his quest by the nameless Lord (Joel Edgerton), he intends to ride out from Camelot, ride back, and in so doing become honorable, a state which will persist for the rest of his life.
Fear of mortality is at the root of the film’s symbolic language. King Arthur’s frail frame and bruised eye sockets, Gawain’s vision of a future in which he never removes his mother’s sash, the battlefield looters who profane the dead and the episode in which Gawain helps a young woman’s ghost search for her severed head all revolve around this central human problem embodied most prominently by the color green. Green symbolizes not just birth and growing in the classical context of springtime, but rot and decay and all things putrid. Gawain’s sash is a rich emerald green, wrapped tight around this dividing line as his body is kept fresh and new while his nature decays. The titular knight himself (Ralph Ineson) is a figure symbolic of both unavoidable death and mercy, growth, and jollity. As envisioned here he resembles various English “Green Man” figures such as John Barleycorn, icons of the harvest and the cycle of the fields.
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Historical Accuracy, Shmistorical Shmaccuracy
The rest of the film’s design choices are equally bold and unique, from costume designer Malgosia Turzanska’s hagiographic royal regalia and eerily futuristic wedding raiments to the red-lit depths of a pond into which Gawain dives and the yellow haze of the river leading to the Green Knight’s chapel. The Green Knight is a visual feast, drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for which the legendary Eiko Ishioka designed bizarre and instantly iconic costumes, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, to which it pays tribute with its nearly ten-minute silent sequence. This last in particular is a jaw-dropping piece of cinema, an expression of Lowery’s total trust in his costume designer, set design (Jade Heeley, Jenny Oman), cast, and cinematographer (Andrew Droz Palermo). For ten breathless minutes we drift through cold stone rooms and bloody encampments and watch the petty cruelties of Medieval life unfold on scales grand and mean, sinking deeper and deeper into the illusion as Daniel Hart’s score swells and booms.
Nowhere is Lowery’s trust misplaced, but seeing Dev Patel step into a leading role is one of the film’s great revelations. He’s effortlessly charming as King Arthur’s ne’er-do-well nephew, Gawain, the son of Morgan le Fay and a sort of medieval party boy ashamed of his own lack of character and intent on taking the easy way out of every situation in which he finds himself. His self-loathing sex scene with the Lady (Alicia Vikander, who also plays his lowborn lover Esel) in which he ejaculates on his sash and her hand is almost palpably taut with dysphoria, the sour and brittle disconnection of mind and body as actions diverge from self-image. Enthroned he is a glowering, joyless wreck without sacrificing an inch of his frankly jaw-dropping beauty. Upon the heath he is bedraggled and desperate, his long face and lanky physique at once boyish and commanding. In close-up his face proves mobile and expressive, carrying the weight of Lowery’s emotionally and symbolically ambitious film. Every element in play is working perfectly, a rare sight in today’s movie landscape.