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Posts Tagged ‘David Lowery’

If you’re anything like me (which isn’t really a fate I would wish on anybody), there is something of an elephant in the room when it comes to David Lowery’s The Green Knight (currently enjoying a low-profile theatrical run in the UK after having its release cancelled in the summer due to a spike in the virus numbers). You may recall a movie called Gods of Egypt from a few years ago, in which Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush, Elodie Yung, and others played the titular pantheon; the movie wasn’t exactly great, but a lot of the stick it drew was because none of the leading cast were actually Egyptian. (The question of ethnicity when applied to deities is an intriguing one, but let’s not get sidetracked.) Ethnically-appropriate casting is, according to a voluble section of society, very important.

So, anyway, back to The Green Knight, a story set in Dark Ages Britain, concerning the hero Gawain (or Gawaine), who according to some versions of the Arthurian legend hails from the Orkneys. And he is played by Dev Patel, because apparently ethnically-appropriate casting is not an issue on this occasion, at least less of an issue than diversity and colour-blind casting.

Well, whatever. If you feel that every film, no matter what its setting and source material, has to represent an idealised version of contemporary society, then that’s a coherent position you’re entitled to take. It just kicks me out of the movie when something like this happens, that’s all. I mean, Armando Ianucci’s David Copperfield film (also with Patel) just about got away with it, mainly through being studiously non-naturalistic throughout, but I don’t think this is an option open to every film.

Anyway. Let’s talk about the movie proper, which opens one Christmas in – not that it matters much – probably the 6th century. Gawain, though kin to King Arthur (an idiosyncratic but memorable performance by Sean Harris), is still something of a young wastrel, spending all his time carousing and disporting with a young prostitute (Alicia Vikander). However, he is summoned to court by the King for the Christmas feast, and Arthur expresses a desire to know him better.

However, the feast interrupted by the coming – it is implied, the summoning – of a stranger, and a very strange stranger he is: a man made of wood. And, no, this wooden presence is not Orlando Bloom, but the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who has come to play a special Christmas game with the knights of the Round Table – one of them must try to strike him, gaining great renown and glory if he succeeds. But a year hence, the other contestant must seek the Green Knight out and receive in turn whatever wound he inflicted.

Looking to make a name for himself, Gawain volunteers, and after – it is implied – being lent Excalibur by his uncle, arguably gets carried away and ends up beheading the visitor. Decapitating someone at a Christmas party always casts something of a pall, I find, but on this occasion the situation is somewhat saved when the headless body clambers to its feet, picks up the severed bonce and rides away – though not before Gawain is reminded that, one year hence, he is honour-bound to receive payment in kind from the Green Knight…

Anyone’s who’s been keeping up will be aware that I’ve been awaiting this movie somewhat impatiently, filling in the time by watching Excalibur, The Fisher King, and First Knight – my friends and I have been scratching our TTRPG itch with King Arthur Pendragon for the past few months, so it’s all grist to that particular mill. It certainly offers a new and distinctive take on the Arthurian legend, not least in the way it attempts to blend historical grit and uncompromising fantasy – but perhaps that’s not the right word, perhaps mysticism would be better.

This is absolutely not a straight-forward historical adventure, but a disquieting and often spikily strange movie, which makes a point of reminding the audience that this particular tale has been told many times before in different ways. As I’ve suggested in the past, the Arthur legend endures because it is vast and deep enough to accommodate all kinds of interpretations; David Lowery’s version is certainly not going to ‘break’ the myth.

Nevertheless, the film contains an odd mixture of fidelity and innovation, some of it quite self-conscious. The legend surrounding Arthur is pared back – Excalibur, Guinevere and Merlin are all present, but not referred to by name; none of the other famous knights gets anything significant to do. Also present is the figure of Gawain’s mother, who is Orcades (also known as Morgawse) in the legends – Lowery simplifies things by making her a more famous sister of the King, Morgan le Fey (played here by Sarita Choudhury), though again this is not made explicitly clear until the closing credits. One of the innovations is the heavy implication it is Morgan who summons the Green Knight, though her motivations are left for the audience to decide.

Quite a lot of what’s actually going on in The Green Knight – and, as importantly, what it all means – is left for the viewer to work out for themselves. The bulk of the film is concerned with Gawain’s journey to the chapel of the Green Knight, which comprises a series of adventures, some of them unearthly, others mundane, some almost sumptuously surreal in their presentation, and concluding with his stay at the home of a strange unnamed nobleman (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Vikander again). Everything feels like it’s loaded with significance; the film is obviously heavily symbolic throughout, to the point where the actual plot sometimes feels like an afterthought, but interpreting what it all means is extremely difficult (especially while you’re watching it). This is a film that demands thought and time to fully assimilate.

And this is never less true than at the end, which is the section which has outraged some Arthurian purists. Some have complained the film changes the end of the story; I would just say that the film doesn’t have a conventional ending of any kind (shades of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, another Arthurian outlier, but the actual conclusions are quite different). The director has said a more definite ending was filmed, but the one they eventually went with was a deliberate choice.

(And I can’t really criticise this. Only after watching the film did I remember that, nearly 35 years ago, I was given the assignment of retelling this tale by my English teacher: we were given the premise, and told to continue the story. I couldn’t figure out what to do once Gawain reached the chapel, so I ended the story rather ambiguously at that point (and got a very good mark). Lowery, I hasten to say, takes a slightly different approach (and has likewise got good marks, from the critics).)

The film seems to be about the question of what constitutes a good life, at least in the case of a man like Gawain – wealth, longevity and happiness? Or honour and the fame that comes with it? (Very pertinent questions to a Pendragon game.) Not surprisingly, the film leaves the answer up in the air. One thing that is certain is what a visually impressive film this is, with an equally accomplished soundtrack. It definitely tend towards the arthouse more than the multiplex, and it’s probably easier to admire than genuinely love, but this is still an impressive movie on many levels.

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As long as Kirk Douglas is still with us, the position of Greatest Living Movie Legend is filled, but there are a bunch of honourable mentions just bubbling under, most of them (naturally) ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. Doris Day is 96, Angela Lansbury is 93, Sidney Poitier is 91, and Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood are both 88. Compared to these guys, at only 82 Robert Redford is practically a brash young whipper-snapper, and still feels like a vital and energetic figure in the world of cinema – largely because of his work as a producer and director, and as founder of the Sundance film festival (it is perhaps telling that many younger people are likely aware of Sundance without appreciating the provenance of the name). On the other hand, it’s not as if Redford has ever completely vanished from the screen – there is probably a generation of young viewers who are only really aware of him as the senior bad guy in The Winter Soldier, a role which Redford apparently took mainly because it would be a change of pace and he was interested in learning about the technology involved in making a modern blockbuster.

All this is about to change, of course, as Redford has announced his retirement from screen acting, his final role being the lead in David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun (and produced by Redford himself). This is a mostly true story concerning the doings of Forrest Tucker (played by Redford), a man with an unshakeable love of robbing banks and a comparable fondness for busting out of the various institutions his first passion tends to get him stuck in (at one point escaping from San Quentin in a home-made sail boat). The movie opens with Tucker ambling out of a bank, getting into his car and driving off, only to stop and discreetly change vehicles after only a couple of blocks. Heedless of the police cars zooming about the area, sirens wailing, he goes on to stop and help Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a woman whose car has broken down. Naturally, he refrains from telling her his vocation – or perhaps it’s better to say he doesn’t force the issue when she refuses to believe him on this topic, as he’s just such a warm and pleasant man.

Tucker’s string of bank robberies continues, sometimes alone, sometimes with a couple of equally elderly accomplices (Tom Waits and Danny Glover) – he has a police scanner disguised as a hearing aid, which helps with the getaways. One day he happens to rob a bank which is being visited by down-at-heel police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), managing to do so with hardly anyone noticing. Hunt becomes fascinated by this curiously courteous bank robber (‘Chin up, you’re doing a great job,’ says Tucker to one sobbing cashier) and gets himself assigned to the case of the ‘over the hill gang’. Will Forrest’s growing relationship with Jewel finally motivate him to pack in his criminal career? Or will the forces of law and order finally catch up with their man?

Well, at one point I was planning to watch this with my friend Olinka, who (as regular readers will know) is a sucker for anything which vaguely resembles a thriller. I’m quite glad we didn’t (in the end she decided to go and see Aquaman with me instead), as, despite the bank-robbing-police-manhunt elements of the plot, this isn’t really the kind of film it looks like. On paper it sounds like it has a lot in common with King of Thieves from earlier this year, another film about a gang of superannuated bank robbers, and indeed there are a few things they have in common – in both cases, footage and publicity shots from old movies is re-used to depict the characters as younger men (here we are treated to reminders of Twilight Zone-Death-era Redford, Butch Cassidy-era Redford, and Out of Africa-era Redford) – but while the British film came on like a blackish comedy and gradually acquired an edge of genuine menace, The Old Man & the Gun isn’t really any kind of thriller, but a gentle and low-key character piece (the old man is in the majority of the scenes but the gun never gets used).

The relationship between Redford and Spacek is charming and believable, but the heart of the film is really the relationship (such as it is) between Redford and Affleck. Hunt is apparently a man who has all the important things in life – a beautiful wife and children, a decent job, and so on – yet Affleck manages to suggest a subtle melancholy and a sense of a man who is subtly dissatisfied with his lot. One of the things which fascinates him about Tucker is the fact that, quite apart from the fact that everyone comments on what a nice man he is, he is grinning broadly as he goes about his business. Tucker, the film suggests, is one of those fortunate people who has found the secret of genuine happiness – it’s just that in his case, the secret is to get his fix of robbing banks and escaping from prison on a regular basis. Apart from this, he seems to be a lovely chap.

If the film is trying to make a point about how everyone is different and this makes Tucker’s lengthy criminal career somehow excusable – and, aided by the megawatt power of Robert Redford’s natural charisma, it is almost impossible not to like him by the end of the film – then it does so in a very understated way. This is a very understated film in almost every way, naturalistic and low-key, with a great period soundtrack (it is mostly set in the early 80s). It has to be said that, after an interesting start, the plot ends up just meandering along, really turning into just a series of undeniably effective character vignettes. There are no great character epiphanies by the end, but you do come away with a distinct sense that Forrest Tucker was a man entirely at peace with himself.

Is it too much to say the same is clearly true of Redford himself? It’s easy to get a bit sentimental at a moment like this. As a valedictory appearance before the camera, this is a great summation of everything that has made him such a star: charisma, intelligence, and subtlety. Even the greatest movie stars seldom get the swan songs they deserve, but Robert Redford has come very close to it here, I think. An extremely well-made and very likeable film.

 

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