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Green Light for The Green Knight

This is one piece in a collection of 10 film reviews submitted by this year’s New Wave Jury members at Cornwall Film Festival 2021. The collection tackles recent films that stood out as radical works of filmmaking. You can read the other reviews here.

Essel (Alicia Vikander), a local common woman asks her lover, Prince Gawain (Dev Patel), “What did it feel like when you…[motions chopping off the head of The Green Knight]?” He answers, “Like cutting a melon in two.” After exiting the cinema, a debate ensued among my friends regarding the history of the arrival of melons on UK shores. I question whether this initial response was the director’s aspiration but if melon transport was our only concern, then we must congratulate him.

After directing the critically acclaimed A Ghost Story (2017), David Lowery embarked on adapting the 14th century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into The Green Knight (2021). The saga follows Gawain, the impulsive and foolhardy nephew of King Arthur (the one with the roundtable) as he seeks honour in the ultimate quest to challenge the notorious Green Knight.

At first glance, Lowery teases with the notion of genre interplay. The film could be described as a window into the true heart of fiction and a mirror to the limitless imagination of storytellers in the form of a fantastical and mythological tale. It could also be described as a period piece adorned with the armour, gowns and goblets of early medieval England or a journey of action/adventure with exploits of machismo and the classic hero with a kind soul.

Most interestingly, however, it introduces the idea of a heritage film. The heritage film genre relates to a foundational era of period dramas that offer escapist visions of England’s past as a response and relief from a socially and politically unstable present. Originating in 1980s Thatcherite Britain, it brought literary adaptations of Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters to the screen in a rose-tinted romanticism of the ‘great nation we once were.’ The chronicle of The Green Knight, although falling into the category of heritage film, subverts this by highlighting that the pursuit of honour for name, title, class and rank which characterises much of our history, is not as pretty a path as one can idealise.

The story is introduced in a strict chronological run of the mill format but as Gawain takes his first steps on his mission, it quickly dissolves into a psychedelic nightmare that not only overthrows the linearity but turns completely nonsensical. To try and make any sense of it, you will only go into a deeper state of confusion. This is a rare feature to behold in cinema, one where the fate of the story is determined by the viewers’ personal perception and interpretation. Lowery has crafted a beautiful piece of cinema, leaving only one aspect for critique – in the next feature, please get your exotic fruits facts straight.

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