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.


26 comments on “Film Week: Not Two Knights, Darling”

  1. Paul+C says:

    Looks an interesting film – I’ll give it a go. I visited the British Library last week and enjoyed the exhibition of ancient books and handwritten manuscripts on the ground floor : Dickens, Mozart, the Brontes, Austen and er the Beatles. I liked the original illustrated Gormenghast manuscript the best. Well worth going along.

    Bizarrely, the oldest intact book in Europe (also on display) was produced in Jarrow of all places – right around the corner from me. I would never have guessed.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin It seems you’ve essentially seen two ‘quest’ films this week (at least which we know about) both with lead characters in search of an appropriate ending. And (possible) spoiler alert — I have to wonder whether your mention of a ‘coup’ (as in ‘coup de théâtre) may be more than a figurative phrase, sly and clever fellow that you are.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Interesting. Apparently it’s the only British film of the three (so far) based on ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ not directed by Stephen Weeks. And in an attempt as a conscientious commenter to tie together as much as possible (and also in the the ‘small world’ category) — it turns out Sean Connery played the ‘Green Knight’ in Week’s 1984 version (‘ Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’}. The enigmatic source material — and to your point that ‘This is ancient England, an era that is unknown to us, ‘ — certainly encourages wild flights of imagination by all concerned and liberties be taken with Middle English heroic romances like this one.

  4. Joel says:

    dev patel…i find him impossibly handsome and endearingly earnest…really the only reason i would watch this..i am unashamed to admit that the only “arthurian” movie/show i have ever enjoyed was (bring on the judgment, i’m not scared) disney’s- sword and the stone.

  5. Joel says:

    i would also add that chris’ description of the weirdness and fantastical in the film is also a draw…arthur, lancelot and the fair damsel…that love triangle always bothered me…i know it happens, but never found it enjoyable

  6. Peter+T says:

    We read it, or a simplified version, in my first year at grammar school. The numerous ‘girdles’ caused much amusement in a classroom of 11-year old boys in the early 1960s.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Okay, you got a ‘yellow card’ for that last pun. Now, unfortunately, you’ll have to be sent off with a ‘red’ for the title here.

  8. Peter+T says:

    Stu-I-Am, I much prefer a (bottle of) Greene King (gf IPA), once and always.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T Well, that being the case, you certainly never have as far to go on your quest for a knight’s entertainment. But then no one will write a 2,530 line verse about your drinking habits either. You can even have your Greene King with a choice of two heads:’northern’ or ‘southern.’ Won’t find that in the Arthurian legends. Now, unfortunately, I’ll have to give you a ‘yellow card.’

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T Just so you know, the ‘yellow’ was a caution for humour most foul.

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    We didn’t do Gawain but I do have a translation by Brian Stone with introductions, essays on important matters and an excerpt from the original. In spite of the excerpt, which has that annoying mid-line break those early rhymsters were so fond of, maybe I’ll finally get around to reading it. According to the back it is “the masterpiece of medieval alliterative poetry” and “the impact on the reader is both magical and human, full of drama and descriptive beauty.” Well, we’ll see, won’t we? This is all your fault you know. In this country we’re trying to move away from Euro-centric thinking.

  12. Martin+Tolley says:

    “Eating a banana through your cardigan.” A new, and better game for Christmas afternoon. Will certainly beat five famous Belgians.

  13. Roger Allen says:

    Sorry, Admin, but I loved the poem, which it sounds like Amazon dirtied up a bit. As you say, it’s Middle English (I like the complicated rhyme and alliteration scheme too – you’re justifiably fond of your own complications, so you should make allowances for other writers), but “Troilus and Criseyde” is in early modern English – that’s all the French words. The Gawaine-poet (also called the Pearl-poet, from another of their four or five poems) is the culmination of a tradition, the point when German-related Middle English lost out to French-influenced modern English. It’s a kind of tragedy. Certainly, J.R.R. Tolkien thought English took the wrong turn when it went Chaucerian.

  14. SteveB says:

    The great David Rudkin wrote a faithful adaptation which is on dvd

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Martin+Tolley Would that ‘banana through a cardigan’ parlour game be a timed competition, do you think? And more importantly, would the weave of the cardies have to be officially approved by some national governing body ? Perhaps the Fruit of the Loom Association ? And I also think it’s about time ‘Name Five Belgians” was officially changed to what it has pretty much always been, ‘Name Three Belgians and Two Frenchmen.’

  16. Roger Allen says:

    There are more complications with ‘Name Five Belgians”. Do people who would have been Belgian if Belgium existed in their lifetimes count?

  17. Peter+T says:

    Think of fifteen famous Frenchmen. The chances are that at least five are Belgian. Many of the remainder will be Italian, Spanish or Swiss.

  18. Roger Allen says:

    Fifteen famous Frenchmen?
    Easy, Peter T: Louis I, Louis II, Louis IIiI…

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter +T & Roger Allen I say let’s change it up altogether, make it ‘Five Famous Mongolians,’ and be done with it.That should clear the lounge after Christmas dinner. Except of course, for Uncle Anorak who changed his obsession from trainspotting to Mongolian history over the past year. And no, you’re not allowed to use Attila’s Huns as a collective ‘four’ (after the head man) — you have to name them individually.

  20. BarbaraBoucke says:

    I know this post was about the film, but I hope you enjoyed the ice cream down to the very last bit at the bottom of the mason jar!

  21. Peter+T says:

    Roger, According to certain leading light authors (one of whom we never refer to by name on these pages) Louis {I : N} are descended from Jesus Christ, which makes them sons of David Israelites. Of course, this might not be true as (to my limited knowledge of the subject) it’s not mentioned anywhere in Arthurian Holy Grail histories or Indiana Jones.

    Stu-I-Am, Even I can think of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan and there must have been three unpronouceable and unspellable Khans, whch makes five without stretching to the possible origns of the Huns.

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter + T I’ve conferred with the officials and they reckon you’re at least one Mongol short of a horde, even with Attila, since the rules require you to — and I’m quoting here —‘either pronounce, spell or mime the individual to be considered.’ And just so you don’t try to unethically Khan us, the officials also ruled out the use of a ‘Mrs. Khan.’ However, they did recognize your ability to personally clear a lounge and you should be receiving a certificate to that effect shortly.

  23. admin says:

    ‘One Mongol short of a horde’ is now my new favourite phrase.

  24. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin I hereby grant you full and exclusive right to said phrase in perpetuity. In return, as a man of your words, I’m sure you will grant me leave to go full curmudgeon on what I see as the profligate use of ‘not a problem’ and ‘no worries.’ It has gotten to the point where even the French, to whom idioms are like wine, have begun to publicly sneer at ‘pas de souci,’ the Gallic version of what should be a reflexive expression about yourself or the person addressed.

    For example, (You) ‘I really don’t mind that you just honked on my new shoes.’ (Them) ‘I would apologize, but I didn’t realize they were new.’ Instead we get, (You) ‘No problem.’ (Them) ‘No worries.’ Enter the sociologists. Apparently the use of the ‘no problem’/’no worries’ phrase allows us to simultaneously ‘save face’ and, permit the addressee to do likewise. Who would have thought, ‘no problem’ was so thoughtful ? How about we just say what we really mean, like — ‘You stupid %$#@!!.’ There, isn’t that better ?

  25. Roger Allen says:

    Being able to say ‘You stupid %$#@!!.’ without losing face, getting punched on the nose or punching someone else on the nose seems to be the great thing about the internet for many people. They never miss an opportunity to say ‘You stupid %$#@!!.’, whether or not it’s justified or appropriate.

  26. Pat says:

    Famous Mongolians: Genghis Khan and all the members of The Hu.

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