The Green Knight: Empire, Vice, Virtue and Unmasking the Human Journey

A new film by one of the best Director’s working today is always something to celebrate. David Lowry’s body of work might be relatively small (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story), but it is also exceptionally strong, includiing his latest and much anticipated The Green Knight, an adaptation of a lesser known story from the Arthurian legends. I have been thrilled to see the buzz around this release as strong in its anticipation as it has been (at least leading up to its release), as Lowry isn’t exactly conventional, and it should be said off the top that this is his most uncoventional film yet. If the snails pace nature of A Ghost Story and its emphasis on complicated imagery/metaphor/poetry reflecting deep philosophical yearnings (all elements that established it as one of the all time great works of art) was any indication of Lowry’s sensibilities, The Green Knight takes this to another level as an imaginative take on an old legend soaked in magical realism while seeking to be something of a subversion (or perhaps inversion) of legendary and mythic storytelling.

Empire, Quests, Legacy, Meaning and Crazy Uncles

If you know anything about the source material this film is pulling from this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is based on a decided work of poetry, a strange and eclectic and at times seemingly incoherent literary work befitting your high school English class that might or might not have assigned it and left you a bit befuddled. The main character, a relative of Arthur who seems to fit the stereotype of that ambiguous and strange uncle who sits in the chair in the corner at family gatherings not saying much while others gain all the attention, but when you do go to talk to him turns out to be super smart with lots of theories about things like life, meaning, God, ect that don’t exactly fit him into the status quo. This story and character was due an adaptation, and the material seems tailor made for Lowry.

At the heart of the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sits a message about the dangers of Empire. Camelot is a representation of the Empires within history that rise and fall according to the shifting sands of time. A central question that emerges within this is the question of legacy and what it means to make and leave a legacy in the telliing of our individual stories. The opening sequence introduces us to the crazy uncle in the room (our main character), someone who is clearly a bit eradic, given to whims, somewhat undisciplined and a little bit uncertain. His penchant for revalry isn’t meant to demonize him, but rather emphasizes the inner turmoil that does exist as a forming tension It is here where this question of legacy and Empire gets funneled into further and even more particular questions regarding meaning and meaning making exercises, especially where it wonders about about how much control we actually have over how our stories ultimately get told. As they (the Knights of legend) ask Sir Gawain to tell them a story, he laments that he has no story to tell. Thus when The Green Knight arrives this becomes his opportunity to make something of himself, to have a story to tell that can qualify him as a “Knight”. While no men are willing to step forward and take on the Knight’s invitation, which comes with a cost, Gawain takes it believing that he can control and direct his narrative destiny. As the journey unfolds it becomes clear that very little lies within his control. Free will emerges as a possible illusion, something that melds with Lowry’s sharp visual depiction moving between old world myth and modern day realism. The sacrificial cost of telling his story in a way that brings meaning then re-emerges with a complicated presence, wondering about how far he should commit himself and attach himself to this endeavor of virtuous accomplishment and how motivated he should be to complete this quest if it is indeed an illusion and outside of his control.

Visuals, Performances and Polarities: Virtue and Vice, Life and Death, Head and the Heart

Lowry soaks this film in his penchant for practical visuals, from the character of the Green Knight’s wonderful and welcome absence of any CGI to the carefully structured and designed sequences that conjure magic not from digital trickery but from well thought out uses of lights and shadows, along with carefully thought out angles and aesthetic. The scene where he steps out into the early light of day to begin his journey is particularly memorable for how blinding that moment is. And the way Lowry establishes this aesthetic as a combination of old world mystery and muted, modern sensibility is brilliantly imagined, especially in the way he takes a muted palate and uses it to create these sudden contrasts between the transcendent and the grounded, death and life, dream and reality. Lowry knows how to use a small budget, and here he makes the most of it. Stylistically this feels like a fusion of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon, and its worth noting that Lowry has been on record talking about how he wanted to design this after those familiar 80’s fantasy films like Willow and Princes Bride. You can definitely see that written in to the fabric of the film as a kind of “fantasy adventure” story.

It would be hard to go any further without mentioning Dev Patel (this is up there for me as a career defining performance with The Personal History of David Copperfield, although most will know him most readily from Lion) and the illustrious and incredible Alicia Vikander (in a dual role). They are so well cast, and both of them embody characters that would be difficult to imagine while also translating that into something recognizably human and modern. Keeping the allegorical nature of their persons both functional and in full view is no easy accomplishment, something they both manage to convey with a high degree of skill, passion and commitment.

The film’s larger narrative about Empire, which brings together questions of power and violence and the more intimate focus of its internalized and recognizably human tensions become the necessary fuel for unravelling the journey that Sir Gaiwan undertakes and the stakes that become increasingly at play as the journey unfolds. Lowry breaks this into chapters that meld the poetry of the text into the interpretive visual form (captured wonderfully in moments of important monologues and metaphorical/allegorical interest), which bring to light the constant and ever reaching dichotomies of vice and virtue that color the film’s ultimate concern. Sex and violence of course loom large here as recognizable parts of our nature, with Gaiwan’s character seemingly caught between his desire to be and do something meaningful and the challenges and temptations that seem to get in the way of this accomplishment and render it meaningless and superficial. This is perhaps most readily captured in the repeated refrain, “are you a Knight”, which gets manifested in different ways as part of a unified struggle between vice and virtue (Am I knight? You certainly look like a Knight? I don’t feel like a Knight? What does it mean to be a Knight?). Caught up in this journey is the categorization of these different virtues (such as kindnees for example) as tensions Gaiwan must carry as he figures out this question of knighthood, and vices that seem to cloud these virtues from any clear definition and clarity of captial “T” Truth, threatening to render them to contextual entities and/or obscurity. At war are the two sides of this nature that aim to not only be something, but to become something of relevance while at the same time also attempting to positio this necessarily wthin something transcendent, something that has the power to give and afford him and his story a sense of meaning. What his life is has a lot to say about what life itself is defined as, and its hard to differentiate between these two things within the film. Does one make the other? Is one dependant on the other? Do we make a meaningful life, or is life meaningful and therefore we are obligated and drawn to make something of it? And how do we measure success and failure when also navigating and wrestling with the competing natures of life and humanity, driven as it is by the inevitable laws of entropy and expressed undeniably in the stories and story of history and Empire? Here the continued rise and fall of Empire becomes emobied in the person of Gaiwan, resonating with the echos of inevitable patterns and seemingly determined ends.

All of this gets wrapped up in this question of whether we actually then have any control over our legacy, with one of the more important questions ringing forth through Gaiwan’s meandering path forward in a particular direction, “is this all there is”. A question that evokes this sense that legacy somehow needs and longs for something eternal in order to make sense of itself in the here and now. Why is it that legacy matters if not to last, and should these legacies fade with the fallen Empires of the past, buried with the death that becomes the consequence of life, what worth does “knighthood” acually have except to merit some possibility of immediate reward. This is where the ingrained need to create and leave a legacy and the drive towards the transcendant (faith or virtue) begins to expose those most honest portions of ourselves as a rationalized argument for some kind of definition, caught as it is between a matter of competing desires and seemingly shaped and determined by something that is also bigger than ourselves (whatever that is, be it something of significance or not). The reigning visual of this disconnecting of head and heart that follows Gaiwan’s story seems especially poignant here, as rational and irrational attempts to figure this tension seem as necessarily intertwined as they are at odds.

Interpretive Exercises: Navigating Old World and New World Language

One curiousity would be to parse out how precisely Lowry is interpreting the presence of The Green Knight and adapting this story into a modern age. Is the Green Knight a corrupting image? A redemptive one? Or does it embody both of these ideas at the same time, as equal parts of this apparent need to define nature and life as something recognizable, and the need to attach that to a story that gives this definition meaning? Is it the measure of this “test” of integrity that burdens and entices Gaiwan, especially as it plays into the war between vice and virtue that define our story as important and meaningful in a contexualized and collective fashion, seemingly against our control, or at least against seemingly great odds? If so, that creates a dilemma between what our nature strives to overcome (some version of a will) and the ways our nature (and Nature) looks to persist and establish itself over this semblance of a will. To return to this question, is it simply that we have a story to tell that makes life and legacy meaningful? If so that feels entirely dependent, circumstantial and determined by our experience (or lack of it). And in so many respects feels largely beyond our control.

Here it would certainly seem Lowry is drawing on the metaphorical “green”, which can indicate, as we see in the film, both life (newness of growth) and death (the moss that covers us in our decay). The green here emerges as symbolic of creation itself, the emergence of land and earth and cosmos (and in the old world setting the notion of God, in the modern setting progress and knowledge) through which life then flourishes. The journey or invitation the Green Knight offers to Gaiwan at the beginning of the film could be seen as one that cuts through the problematic noise of Empire to test not only Gaiwan himself, but the very assumptions of meaning and purpose that flow from these systems and politics and societal expectations that define us often based on some level of power and oppression and conquest. Lowry has been on record saying that he wanted this to comment on the present division in American politics, particularly when it comes to religion. Given the religious imagery present in the story, The Green Knight could then stand as a symbol of both creation and new creation marred by this loss of attention to the co-existing nature of virtue and vice as shaping agencies. If Lowry is attempting to evoke this using the old Arthurian legends, what follows is a seeming commentary on this old world-new world transition. As the modern myth emerges we leave the old gods behind, and imagine a world where we can make new choices that lead us into an enlightened world no longer mired by Empire, and thus seemingly elevating the good of our nature above the bad as the possible victorious agency.

There is a lot I think to parse out from that interpretive take, and I think Lowry is trying to bring all of this into play at once while stopping short of offering easy answers to the problem. Here is the curious thing though in Lowry’s tabling of this Old World-New World conflict and emergent narrative. Lowry infuses this film with a clear collaboration of imagery that is at once both Christian and Pagan. This is intentional on Lowry’s part in evoking an imagination of peace in times (within the Empire of America) of religious power and divide. Curiously though, a part of what Lowry is doing is evoking a period of history that stands as symbolic in this shift towards the West and the stories (legends/myths) that got left behind and excised from our common narrative and language in the process. Lowry is using old world language to say something about what he sees as a modern problem (or perhaps a modern potential), but in doing so creates an interesting commentary on the importance of these stories and the neglected and ignored impact of their loss in our modern ethos, one which has redefined myth to mean something that is not true and relegated the fairy stories to the realm of invented fantasy.

At the same time, what he is doing in tapping into the Pagan imagery is actually reaching back even further in history to offer that age old picture of Empires past and the plurality of coexisting pagan cultures that gave these Empires their strength and power (think of course Rome, but also stemming back to Babylon). Which has never worked in history, not when you assume the presence of actually diverse convictions, and this is why Empires end up exerting their power. What history has always demonstrated is that where the promise of diversity extends its welcome hand, the dominating narrative of the ruling Empire persists in the work of quiet (and not so quiet) assimilation and subservience to the modern entity controlling the narrative. Where this clashes and becomes oppressive is when co-existing diversity reveals itself as competing “convictions” within efforts to commodify a singular worldview (such as modernism). This is precisely why the modern experiment recognizes this divide between the old and new. Excise the old gods and diversified conviciton can then be controlled and formed into a single, shared belief system. The irony being that this is nothing new. For as problematic as this sounds on paper, it remains the most common answer we see history striving towards in times of chaos. Ironically, such visions of peace ultimately become the very thing that Empires are built from, over and over again, precisely because convictions and assumptions and governing worldviews always emerge and show their face within our tendency to need and to want to grapple with notions of meaning and legacy, virtue and vice.

Modern Narratives, Old Gods, Assimilation, and Necessary Humility

To this end there could be a tendency for modern viewers to see the religious language here and play it out as the true enemy, placing Gaiwan’s opportunity to create his legacy by way of human pursuit and accomplishment in its place as the “hopeful” and highly modernized and heavily Westernized message. And yet Lowry leaves some unsettled notes about the transcendent nature of meaning and the inconsistency of nature lingering in the background, which resists landing this hopful message here with any real sense of declarative purpose as a truly “modern” answer. Although I’m sure some will still read this film as an anti-religious diatribe. It’s similar to how people interpreted the film Wolfwalkers last year, narrowing in on Cromwell as a measure of this necessary shift from old to new while neglecting to give attention to the way their own modern reading of the film was committing the same sins as the colonizers, excising the conviction of that old Irish spirituality and imposing onto to it modern assumptions and readings of myth and legend as “fantasy” that degrades that sense of conviction and assimilates it into new world assumptions.

By letting some of those unsettled notes linger, Lowry writes a story that, perhaps unintentionally (maybe with intention), breathes a little bit of necessary humility into the discussion. On the other side of this confident modernist tale would be the futility of such realizations that tend to rationally uncover legacy and story and meaning as ultimately outside of our control and free will and personhood as illusions. This could lend itself to more nihilistic interpretations of the story, which would be an equally fair reading. Lingering in the background though (think the scene under water where the bubbles turn to stars) is this sense that somehow choices still do seem to matter, and that how we live our lives plays into how life is defined and how we discover meaning within it. But this requires irrational leaps in our reasoning, an embrace of the transcendent as something that comes from outside of ourselvse in order to operate with any sense of agency. This is what these old stories, entrenched in real world history, allow us to do.

Endings and Subversions: A Point of Crisis, Tension and Clarity

The subversion or inversion of the nature of legends/myth mentioned near the start ultimately happens with Lowry’s choice of ending. Here we get all of the above- the nihilistic, the purposed, and the conditional. This is an interpretive move on Lowry’s part meant to take the original story’s ending and contextualize it into the story he ultimately wants to imagine in this film. It is reminiscent of the way the recent adaptation of Little Women plays with the ending and real world setting of Alcott’s book. It’s saying something new while also commenting on the source material in a way that centers it on something old and thus eternal. What we do with these three things is I think part of what we are meant to wrestle with as viewers, and I think the film leaves room to do this within both religious and non-religious outlooks, forcing us to contend with a messy reality in ways that force us to consider both potential and determined, positive and negative realities. The same caution applies here though as it does with the film Little Women. In our rush to employ an observational and heavily assumed narrative of old to new, regressive ideologies (oppresion of women) and progressive realities (women’s liberation), we could find ourselves losing all sense of definition for life, meaning and value in the process if we simply leave history behind as outmoded and irrelevant. Or worse streamline history in a linear sense. This obscures both the patterns that shape our world in a shared sense, while repeating the story of Empires risen and fallen throughout history in our modern context. Our stories are not so much linear as they are interconnected, familiar, recognizable, determined, and beholden to context. Women’s liberation for example is not an explicitly modern victory as it is a response to the problems that exist within modern forms of Empire. There are points in history that could be deemed far more progressive than our modern age after all. This is not so much progressive (in modern usages of that word) and emergent as it is evidentially aware of our embedded nature. So it is with Gaiwan’s journey. The liberating part of this story, even if accidental on Lowrys part, is that it binds us to the old as it imagines the new in our present context. It reminds us of the power of stories long forgotten and of the way these stories root us in this history in ways that bring clarity to the division of the now.

In any case, a big part about what I love about this film is how it challenges the modern viewpoint of legend and myth, reaquaints us with a kind of storytelling lost to the emergence of the modern narrative, and in doing so challenges us at least in some respects to find our roots once again in these shared stories, even as Lowry works to subvert it. He makes “legend” a transcendent entity that evokes a marriage of the fantastical and realism, something that seems to exist above us and which informs our longings for something more than simply this present revelry in vice and virtue as interchangeable notions.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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