By John H. Foote
(****) In theatres
I am astounded by how few films are made from the 13th century tales of Arthur and his knights of the round table and that legendary place called Camelot. There are a few—the musical Camelot (1967) of course, John Boorman’s bloody and brilliant Excalibur (1980) and more recently, the dreadful King Arthur (2015).
Excalibur is a magnificent film, shot on a low budget yet filled with spectacular imagery that made Camelot downright pastoral. We see the metaphor “The land and the King are one” in reality as Arthur’s triumphs are paralleled with a prosperous and beautiful landscape, but as he anguishes over his wife in the arms of his best friend Sir Lancelot, the land turns to waste and the people despair. Only when he rises to fight again with Lancelot at his side does the land burst with vivid and startling colours as they ride through the fields, blossoms cascading down on them in their reflective armor.
With a cast of relative unknowns — Helen Mirren the only real star at the time — Boorman creates a towering version of the saga with Arthur initially as a bumbling fool, a squire to his brother until he famously removes the sword from the stone. This divides the people until he has the courage to lay down the sword at the foot of his enemy and demand the man knight him. Expecting his head to be lopped off, the men are stunned when the enemy knight acquiesces, saying, “I doubt you no more.” From there we watch the awkward boy grow into a thoughtful and powerful leader. Arthur is played by Nigel Terry, who continued to work in British film, stage and television the balance of his career, but has never again found a plum role like this. Boorman placed the weight of his film on the shoulders of this young man and was rewarded with a superb performance.
The tale of Arthur is such a grand one, filled with majesty, magic, romance and wonder. Why have more films not been made about it?
After the massive financial success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-02-03) and the 17 Academy Awards and 31 nominations earned by the film, I thought we might see many more films of that sort, mystical fantasies set in times of long ago when knights roamed the earth in the same realm as sorcerers and strange mystical creatures. There were a couple of lame attempts at fantasy to match The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but nothing serious until now with The Green Knight.
Director and writer David Lowery, who gave us Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), has brought us an original film, something we so rarely get in these times of comic book re-makes. The Green Knight is smashing entertainment, a film that requires us to think, very much a psychological journey as opposed to a thunder and lightning adventure but a breathtaking work just the same.
Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is an unproven member of the elite living near King Arthur who is invited to dinner by the older, much loved King. He and his Queen quietly urge the young man to step up to a challenge issued by the mysterious Green Knight. The knight challenges any man to strike a blow against him, and if they succeed, they win the Green Knight’s axe but must come back in a year to receive a return blow. Gawain bravely steps forward, promptly lops off the knight’s head. The knight picks up his detached cranium and rides away, reminding Gawain to return to the Green Chapel in a year to finish their duel. Used to carousing and whoring, Gawain is suddenly in the terrible position of facing a very real death in one year. Urged by the King to dig within himself and find a way to win that contest, he sets off on a journey, hoping to find what it will take to make the King proud of him.
With a blessing from the King and Queen, the love of his lady, portrayed by Alicia Vikander, and the endorsement of his beloved mother, he sets off prepared to find what it will take to defeat the Green Knight, a most formidable opponent.
In the rugged land, Gawain comes face to face with ghosts, giants, wizards, temptresses, and bizarre, dangerous creatures that will lay waste to his life if given the chance. What he does with each new challenge will prepare him for his fight at the end of the year.
Though it would have been easier to approach the film as a supernatural adventure, Lowery instead explores the journey of Gawain as a psychological struggle. What he discovers about himself is not what he was looking for but, in the end, serves him well as a future knight. It is dreamlike in its execution, hallucinatory at times, with the nightmarish imagery of the giants being among the best scenes in the film. And the Green Knight is a form of man and the land, an image borrowed from Excalibur, his face and body part of the trees, clearly wood and human merged into one. He is a powerful creation, one you will not soon forget.
Dev Patel is absolutely fantastic in the film as Gawain, coming into his own as a major acting force in modern film. He enjoyed a strong debut in the criminally overrated Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which gave him near instant worldwide fame, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) followed, another big hit, and then the sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) before Lion (2016) landed him another role to challenge his obvious gifts. His performance as Gawain is the finest of his career and he does a superb job as both an arrogant adolescent as well as a man who learns humility and decency on the road to the Green Knight. This is Patel’s performance for the ages.
Though the rest of the cast do not have much to do, it is solid, particularly Alicia Vikander who plays multiple roles throughout the film. The underappreciated actor Joel Edgerton is outstanding as Lord Bertilak, while Sarita Choudhury is excellent as Gawain’s mother, a witch who might be the person who put this whole series of events into motion.
Atmospheric, dark and moody, the film plunges back in time to Camelot, a place that exists in poems and stories. Lowery has the courage to take those stories and bend them to his will to give us something we have not seen before. As I have stated, the film is original, unlike anything I have ever seen concerning the Arthur legend and Camelot, and utterly brilliant. At this writing, this is the best film of the year. I know we have a long way to go before the Oscars, but how can this NOT be a major player come awards season. I loved every second of it. A mainstream work of art!
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.