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August 16, 2021

The Green Knight: A Cinema Masterpiece

by Jonn Holland

Amidst the usual summer blockbusters, A24 Films presents us with “The Green Knight,” an epic, dark fantasy tale plucked from Arthurian legends.

The story of Sir Gawain; King Arthur’s nephew, is a brooding one. Here we have a young man living in the shadow of his Uncle, the heroic deeds of the Knights of the Round Table and his own desire to be more than he is, unable to see greatness within himself. A greatness even King Arthur sees in him.

Gawain’s opportunity to be a legend comes in the form of The Green Knight. A mystical creature brought forth to offer a challenge to any of Arthur’s knights. A challenge Gawain accepts thinking his moment had come, only to doom himself.

Dev Patel as Gawain
Photo by Eric Zachanowich / A24 Films/Eric Zachanowich / A24 Films

As compelling the story of Sir Gawain is, it isn’t the main reason I consider this film a masterpiece of cinema. I call it a masterpiece because of how the combination of cinematography, script, editing and directing comes together in this particular film.

The imagery alone was enough to have me fully immersed.

There are many examples of spectacular use of practical and natural light and the contrast between light and shadow throughout the film, but my favorite comes near the beginning with an establishing scene.

We see what can be described as a snapshot of medieval times. There are farm animals and a peasant gathered near a wall which separates the inner city from the village. In the background, we see a larger building. The sky is grey and foggy. Next, another snapshot of the setting. Our only clue time has passed is the animals and the peasant have moved and the taller building is smoldering. Another shot and the flames have gotten bigger. Yet another and the flames are higher still, the roof of the building almost completely engulfed. A man and a woman enter the shot, changing this static scene to one with movement. Something is happening here, perhaps these two are responsible for the fire as we see the man draw his sword to confront whomever is coming after them.

We can only imagine the outcome of that scene because the camera moves, revealing the window we’ve been peering through. As the camera dolly’s backward, we are introduced to Sir Gawain whose face we can just make out because of the highlights on his profile and shoulder. The rest in soft shadows cast by the morning light.

Yes, the pacing is slow, but it is deliberate. A testament to Director David Lowery’s dedication to telling the story without rushing it. There are no hyperactive action sequences or quick pans. Every scene, every piece of dialogue is integral to the story and Lowery knows this.

Dev Patel and Sean Harris King lends his sword to Gawain © 2021 – A24

Lowery’s mastery of his craft is also evident in the performances of his actors. The most notable of these is Dev Patel as Gawain and Sean Harris as King.

Patel’s performance as Gawain is both energetic and natural. He never oversells the emotion of his character. It is his embodiment of Gawain which further immerses the audience in the journey the young knight must take to face the inevitable consequence of his own actions.

Harris is equally captivating as King. He gives us a wearied Arthur-we all know he’s King Arthur, yet his official role is simply King- time has caught up to the once and future king, no longer a young man uniting all of Britain with Excalibur held high. Yet, in his performance, Harris appears a wearied, world-worn King who is still nothing short of legendary, who does not take pride for himself, but champions his companions; the men who’ve fought with him and stood by his side. He shows us an aged King filled with compassion for his nephew, wanting Gawain to find the greatness within himself.

It is the combination of the elements I’ve described, along with a decisive editing style from Lowery and unparalleled cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo which cements “The Green Knight” as a masterpiece in my mind. The film is mesmerizing, captivating, artistic and moving all at once. If you haven’t seen it yet, might I suggest you make a trip to your local theatre and treat yourself to a cinematic event.

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