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  • Writer's pictureMike O'Driscoll

The Green Knight & more ...

My apologies, but this piece contains spoilers.

Got back Friday from a visit to San Francisco to see family living out there. One of the highlights of my trip was the opportunity to catch up with three recent films, each of which had something to say about masculinity, heroism and honour. David Lowery's grungy and offbeat The Green Knight, takes on the legend of Sir Gawain and his encounters with the Green Knight. I wasn't sure what to expect, not having seen any of Lowery's previous work, but this one straddles a fine line between the surreal squalor of John Boorman's Excalibur, and the madcap absurdity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I liked the film alot, especially the manner in which it challenged received notions about chivalry and honour. Dev patel's Sir Gawain, though keen to make the most of his elevated status for having risen to the Green Knight's challenge, remains something of a reluctant hero.

Once he sets out on his quest to face the Green Knight for a second time, having been prompted by King Arthur, Gawain displays a passivity and naivete that sits at odds with conventional perceptions of a heroic knight. He's easy prey for a trio of young bandits, and later gives in too easily to temptation while the guest of a noble lord. At their final confrontation, Gawain' fear prompts him, initially at least, to betray his promise to the green knight, yet Lowery allows him to redeem himself with his proclamation that he is, finally, ready to die. The film ends on an ambiguous note and we have to decide for ourselves on Sir Gawain's fate and whether or not his heroic status is truly warranted.

Although the film features fine performances, especially from Patel and Alicia Vikander as his lover, and is beautifully shot, it is not without its faults. Although it explores and sometimes attempts to subvert the heroic tropes of Arthurian myth including responsibility, faith, honour, and the wisdom of committing to oaths, it's not always successful in doing this. At times Lowery's revisionist narrative seems about to fall apart, and at others its playfulness seems forced. The tension between the film's self-conscious irony and the desire to say something important about masculinity and heroism, threaten to undermine the whole thing. And yet, in spite of, or maybe because of these contradictory impulses, it maintains a dreamlike and enigmatic quality that makes it quite unlike any other medieval fantasy I've seen. Definitely one to check out.

As is Ridley Scott's own more conventional but no less compelling medieval epic, The Last Duel. Deploying a tripartite narrative structure 'borrowed' from Kurosawa's Rashomon, the film relates the same events from three different points of view: that of the Knight Carrouges, played by Matt Damon, his former friend, the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Carrouges' wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The film purports to be based on real events in 14th century France, and follows the attempts of Carrouges to seek justice, primarily for himself, and only then for his wife, following her rape by Le Gris. This is a crucial point--that Carrouges perceived Le Gris as having committed an injustice aginst himself, for Marguerite is, in essence, his property. This is made explicit early on in the hard-headed negotiations between Carrouges and his prospective father-in-law over Marguerite's dowry, and it is the assignment--or theft, as he sees it--of a valuable parcel of land included in the dowry, to Le Gris that leads to enmity between the two men.

It's an intelligent and brutally realised epic on the scale of Scott's own Gladiator or indeed Excalibur. It features fine performances from the three leads, and a comically self-effacing turn from Ben Affleck as Le Gris' mentor, Count Pierre d'Alençon. The climactic last duel between Carrouges and Le Gris, aklthough ostensibly to determine the truth or falsity of Marguerite's claim of rape, is, for both men, more a case of displaying their own bravery and honour, irrespective of the woman's fate, given that she stands to be burnt alive should her husband be defeated. The duel is, nevertheless, as thrilling and dynamic as any featured in Gladiator, and in its gory brutality, it surely owes something to the trial by combat between Oberyn Martell and Gregor Clegane in Game of Thrones.

Although the film was critically well-received, it inexplicably bombed at the box office. Never mind, I loved it and recommend it unreservedly.

The third and final film I saw in San Francisco was the western Old Henry, directed by newcomer (at least to me), Potsy Ponciroli. Set in the early years of the 20th century, it tells the story of a widower father in the midwest, scraping a living off a small holding with the help of his son and his brother-in-law. Trouble appears in the form of a half-dead lawman that Henry brings back to the farm after his son spies the wounded man's horse. There's a gang pursuing the lawman and at the first confrontation between Henry and the gang, through a series of visual and verbal cues, not least the revelation of Henry's surname, we begin to learn something of his violent past. This time though, the protagonist is less concerned with displaying his bravery and prowess in combat, than in disavowing a violent and heavily mythologised past.

As with Mateo Gil's superb 2011 film Blackthorn, in which Butch Cassidy is depicted as having survived the siege in Bolivia in which he was supposed to have been killed, Ponciroli's film posits that Billy the kid, alias William Bonney, born Henry McCarthy, was not shot dead by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner in 1881, but survived and later married and settled in Kansas as a farmer. His wife has died some time before the main narrative begins, and despite his loss, McCarthy seems content with his mundane life devoid of notoriety. The early scenes reminded me somewhat of the first sight of William Munny in Unforgiven: another once notorious outlaw, now widower, struggling to provide for his children off the land.

The arrival of the gang poses a threat to Henry's domesticity, and when he sees the real danger to his son, he is forced into action. It's an old-fashioned western but no less engaging for that, with a couple of well-executed set pieces and a hard-scrabble, elegiac feel reminiscent of movies like Open Range and Unforgiven. Tim Blake Nelson is convincing as the title character and overall it offers a satisfying and exciting take on the mythology of Billy the Kid .

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