Film Week: Not Two Knights, Darling
Last film under discussion this week…
Both Gawain (which is here pronounced Ga-warn) and the Green Knight are Knights of the Round Table. ‘The Green Knight’ is the latest retelling of one of Britain’s oldest tales. There’s only one copy of it in the world, in the British Library, right around the corner from me, and I’ve never seen it. We all brushed against it at school because teachers loved to torture us with Old Epic Romantic Poems. This one is made all the harder because it’s not just in Middle English like ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ but also in an untranslatable short-lived Midlands dialect.
To further add to the pain it uses internal rhymes. Its metrical form is called the ‘Bob and Wheel’, where each stanza ends with a short half-line of only two syllables (the Bob), followed by a mini-stanza of longer lines which rhyme internally (the Wheel). The use of this ludicrously complex form over 2,500 lines of verse is (it says here) ‘a demonstration of the poet’s skill’. A demonstration of utter pointlessness more like.
What do we get when it’s translated? It’s the archetype of all quest stories, reworked by everyone from Malory to Steinbeck and Ackroyd; a simple structure concealing powerful life lessons. It begins with a Christmas game that involves serious payback. The Green Knight turns up at the yuletide table and demands that someone smite him, and he will return the same blow one year later. But Gawain does a bit more than that and whacks his head off. For a moment we’re in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ mode.
So Gawain must have his own head removed in a year, and to do that he must complete a year-long quest at a green chapel far away. What isn’t stated in the film, unless I failed to notice it while I was ploughing through an immense ice cream served in a mason jar (Everyman Cinema, King’s Cross), is that the crusty old couple on the thrones are King Arthur and Guinevere and we’re in Camelot. This is not the golden city of legend but the crumbling Tintagel-like edifice of late Arthurian legend. I should have spotted this given all the ‘circular table’ clues the film had been giving off. For an epic it’s epically understated.
And it is a film where you need to watch for clues, for little is spelled out and a bit of research will stand you in good stead. Some visuals are confounding otherwise because they stand alone, appearing and vanishing without cause or effect. An interlude is set among a troupe of naked giants. There’s a talking fox. Something is retrieved from a lake – though not a sword.
There are chapters to help guide you on your way, just don’t try to watch it on TV. It’s demanding and stately ie. every patience-stretching shot is held for a good five seconds longer than is strictly necessary. It is mystical in that impossibilities occur in a rational landscape, and it is strangely obsessed with Dev Patel’s face. This is ancient England, an era that is unknowable to us.
So world-building matters. Some scenes are fantastical – naked giants walking through the mist on some unexplained quest of their own, I’m not familiar enough with Malory to know who they are – but many moments are not and feel rooted in realty. Given that the Camelot saga is a myth, are we meant to view this in the same way?
Like most middle-class grammar school kids of my age I can bang through enough Middle English to get into the mindset, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit more other-ness. Sex scenes don’t help because they always modernise period films, and as a result of it being an Amazon production there are too many of them. In these prim times people seem to manage sex without removing their clothes, which must be a bit like eating a banana through your cardigan. If I’d been watching it on telly I’ve have skimmed those bits.
Dev Patel still has that innocent/anxious thing he does so well, even when ejaculating (as he does here) and Gawain’s picaresque journey takes him through some startling natural landscapes. But is anyone he meets on the way to be trusted? Well, that’s life for you, you get burned and eventually learn to be yourself – and of course that’s the point. The moral instruction is not hammered home but arrived at organically, and there’s a very nice coup de théâtre (coup du film?) at the climactic point which will floor you. The lessons learned are real, but legends are just beautiful lies.