Intermittent Magic is the specialty of "The Green Knight"

Uneasy mixture of the past and the future, David Lowery's Arthurian story adaptation succeeds when he is captivated by cinema's ability to measure and manipulate the time.

Intermittent Magic is the specialty of "The Green Knight"

The crowns are one of the most memorable parts of David Lowery’s new film "The Green Knight." They are worn by King Arthur (Sean Harris), and his queen (Kate Dickie). The crowns have built-in halos that attach to the back at ninety degrees. This is handy for reminding your subjects you rule by divine rights. Lowery's version of the Round Table will be of interest to students of Arthurian tradition. It is more like a ring with plenty of room for scheming jesters and blackjack dealers. Keep an eye out for this.

Without an invitation, Arthur's hall is invaded by a horse-drawn figure--the Green Knight. He was played by Ralph Ineson who also starred in "The Witch", (2015). His voice sounds like a piccolo and makes it clear that this Ineson is a horseman. His features are covered in rough bark, making him part tree like the Ent in "The Lord of the Rings" (2015), and creaking as he moves. The film is full of sounds, and it is worth savoring with your closed eyes. But the most memorable is the steely, clanging hiss that greets an intruder as Arthur's men draw their swords. The Knight is armed with an axe, a branch of holy, and it's Christmas. He also has a festive wager: Who will strike him with one swing of a knife and then, a year, and a day later, take a blow in return. Arthur whispers in a darkly disturbing voice, "Remember it's only a game."

The film's title, "A Filmed Adaptation to the Chivalric Romance By Anonymous" describes "The Green Knight" in a suitably antiquated font. It is a long English poem called "Sir Gawain & the Green Knight," which is most likely written in the early fourteenth century. The poet promises to tell his tale "as hit is stad and stoken / In stori stif and stronge"--or, as rendered by J. R. R. Tolkien, "as it is fixed and fettered / in story brave and bold." If the language of the original, thorny with alliteration, has proved as tempting and as testing to modern translators--including the poets W. S. Merwin and Simon Armitage--as the challenge thrown down in Arthur's court, how much tougher is the task of conveying, in a movie, even scraps of so distant a legend?

Another option is to take the entire thing awake. The sleeping Gawain (Dev Patel), is tossed a bucket of water by Essel (Alicia Vikander), his low-born lover. Essel's accent sounds like a traveling minstrel. Someone calls to him and asks, "Are you a knight yet?" He replies, "Not yet." "Better hurry up," he replies. We see that Gawain is not the hero of gallant virtues as he is described in the poem. Instead, he is Gawain, a lad who is lusty, hasty and uncertain of his noble calling. He is the one who answers the Green Knight's dare and decapitates him. Later, however, he watches as his victim calmly retrieves his head (which makes a defiant laughter) and leaves. The honor-bound man is now obligated to go on a journey, facing many perils along the way. And as the year winds down, he meets the woody stranger again and waits for the axe to bite.

The film's uneasy mix of the past and the future is a jarring reminder of what the film was. Gawain fulfils his Yuletide promise and takes refuge at a lonely castle. The lord (Joel Edgerton), provides a warm welcome, while his wife (Vikander again with improved elocution), makes it even warmer, much to Gawain’s dismay. But what we see in his chamber is less carnally honest than what we read on page. "Hir brest isbare bifore, bihinde eke,"--and so is the bloodshed. It is impossible to see the hunting scenes that Lowery so meticulously captures, including the butchering and gutting. Lowery is a long-time vegan. What have is a talking Fox, imported from Lars von Trier’s less arboreal Antichrist (2009). Also, a brief introduction to Gawain’s mother (Sarita Chudhury), who is a sorceress with many charms and a guest appearance by a group of passing giants. We also get to hear the phrase "You'll become my lady, and you'll be mine man" which would have shocked Tolkien (one of the most distinguished editors of the poem), and which suggests that Celine Dion's work was the basis of courtly love culture.

The Green Knight has a unique magic. Lowery's ability to manipulate and measure time, as he demonstrated in "A Ghost Story", (2017), is what makes "The Green Knight" so special. Gawain is trussed by bandits and lies on the forest floor in this amazing sequence. The camera moves through three hundred sixty degrees, finding Gawain reduced to a skeleton. It then circles back in the other direction until it finally catches him alive and ready to be released from his bonds. The movie ends with Gawain running away from his axe, ashamed of what might have happened. We see him return home, inherit the crown and lose all joy as his reign falls. It's like a vision. We understand that this is what would happen to him if he fails in his chivalric duty. And such is the irony of this film: It is when the director takes his own route that he ends up on the overgrown path of the poet from long past, whose name will never be known.

While I don't want to be a witch, I would say that the kinship of "The Green Knight" and the "John and the Hole," Pascual Sisto's new movie, is more than mere coincidence. Sisto continues to weave the tale of Lowery, which is verdant and dangerous.

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