A Quick Review of the new retelling of Gawain…
“The story could not be more simple or more perplexing” writes Peter Bradshaw in his review of The Green Knight, and this is as true of the new film as it is of the romance found in MD Cotton Nero A.x., Art 3. Here we are nearly at Michaelmas, a special time for me as I reflect on forty years of being married, and also the season when I think again and again of Gawain, and Garner, and the challenges of those trips up to the Peaks, and so this is well timed for me, even though The Green Knight has been much delayed, at last we get to see the new film.
It presents a game of colours and shadows that intrigues, delights (for the most part) and challenges: the costumes were fantasy-wonderful – the peculiar crown was a particular favourite of mine. The scenery was mostly well researched: if the forests were a bit Forestry Commission, the high moors looked wonderfully bleak – was that actually Thor’s cave in one scene? Maybe it was an odd way to get from St Winifrede’s Well to Lud’s Church, but in Oxford we get used to scenes of people crossing one quad into an entirely different college. Loads of fog, and silhouettes of the lost traveller while crows caw and perspectives shift. The Green Chapel – over-lush for Christmas, but teeming with a Spring promise of greenery – was everything one might imagine of Lud’s Church painted in mythic colours. While it is a retelling rather than a cinema version of the poem (but yes, there is a very quick flash of the MS at one point) it maintains much of the tension and the ambiguity, and sticks with one of the poem’s principal dilemmas: how does Gawain prove himself when he is so out of his depth? Yes, I did like it.
But there are holes in the film – some deliberate (unless I missed it, we are not given many names other than Gawain and his girlfriend: is this all in Gawain’s head, some sort of Mantel-like psychodrama?); some…well, I’m not sure. A lack of reveal about the witchiness of the plot was odd – and although the ‘magic’ of the women was brilliantly portrayed, I was unsure why we were left to infer quite what they were up to, with Gawain’s mother in on it all, and a creepy Morgana an olde auncien wyf for sure, unintroduced, wandering around Castle Bertilak. And are those ettins, the giants that sort of added atmosphere but not much else? And what was the fox there for? What was St Winifred doing there? A sort of nod to a topography of Gawain’s journey, or a quick footnote on the folklore of the headless? Lots of questions – and it won’t be a hard task to sit and watch it again – but did we really need quite such a dim and draughty pile for Camelot?
Ah yes, Camelot. It was a bold move to set distant castles on hilltops, and some times looking rather (let’s be generous) storybook – but once one of us had humphed “It’s only a model,” and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (that excellent parody of Medieval Mud and All imagery) had been mentioned, it took some time to recover.
Recover we did. Bertilak goes off hunting and so does Lady Bertilak, openly sexually assertive towards Gawain, and a sight more explicit than the poem – and she is given the best speech in the whole film, a quick mini-keynote on what the imagery of Green might signify. Then the kiss of Lord Bertilak to Gawain was just long enough, just suggestive enough to make you think that the Bertilaks are well aware of each other’s game. Gawain (well played by Dev Patel from young and lost in his first scene to old and lost in a scene towards the end) is caught between ‘real’ goodness and the fake goodness of simply keeping up the Christian chivalric code. How does this play out?
Bradshaw and I agree on how successful the atmosphere of “shroomy toxicity and inexplicable moral grandeur” is: the second half, with all that wet-dream (or whatever) tension and the might-be visions of eschewing the Green Knight’s blow is a genuine tour de force. I’m going to avoid spoilers – but the end is every bit as ambiguous as the end of the poem, and I have to say completely won me over. It’s only a game, the King tells us – but what kind of a game are we playing?