“It’s the story of Arthur’s nephew, who is kind of a feckless dickhead,” actor Ralph Ineson laughs when we quiz him about his latest movie, The Green Knight. “He’s a young man with a lot of money, a lot of status, and he spends his time swanning around in nice clothes, hanging out in brothels and getting drunk. As you would.”
Played by Dev Patel, that feckless dickhead is Gawain, and his rich boy lifestyle, doesn’t last long…
“His mother, Arthur’s sister, Morgan Le Fay, decides that he needs challenging, he needs to find his honour,” Ineson continues. “So she summons The Green Knight who arrives on Christmas Day to issue a challenge to the Knights Of The Round Table, which Gawain fearlessly accepts and essentially sets himself on a path of self-discovery, over the year, where he has to meet The Green Knight again a year later, and seal his fate.”
Based on the rather odd 14th-century Arthurian poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and from A24, the company behind movies like The Witch and Midsommar, The Green Knight was always going to be, well, unique… “I mean the movie’s weird,” writer and direct David Lowery laughs, “but it’s weird because the original poem is really really strange!
“Reading it again I was like ‘this is a really weird story’ and that’s part of what makes it so enchanting to me. I like weird things. The stranger the better and this one was just so unusual…”
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight wasn’t the start of Lowery’s love for Arthurian legend, we have Dr Jones and Ron Howard to thank for that: “I’ve been a fan of Arthurian lore from when I was very young. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was my gateway into Grail mythology, which led me to King Arthur. So as a child I was really into this lore and this mythology.
“In college I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the first time, and it really stuck with me, but I didn’t really think about making a movie out of it until one random day in March of 2018 when just randomly, I just decided I wanted to make a movie about a knight on a quest.
“I had a bunch of action figures from the movie Willow, the Ron Howard movie, and I was setting them up. I’d found them in my in my closet, I still had them from childhood. I was just playing with them and was like ‘it would be fun to make a movie like this’. Make a fantasy movie but do it in a more abstract Tarkovskian way. Like do a Tarkovsky version of Willow…”
A Tarkovskian Arthurian fantasy sounds about right – the challenge The Green Knight gives Gawain forces him on a journey which the young knight knows will end in his death. “The ways in which it goes about the traditional chivalric storytelling modes is so unusual, especially because of the implicit drama, the implicit idea of Sir Gawain knowing that he’s going to get his head chopped off by The Green Knight. He goes on this adventure, knowing that that’s what’s going to happen, and is okay with that. I mean, he’s not okay with it, obviously the whole conceit of the poem is that this is a guy who’s dealing with his own fear of mortality but has to face it because he wants to do the right thing and be a knight and an honourable member of Arthur’s Court.
“There’s something so nakedly profound about that, that really resonates on not just a storytelling level but on a human level. On an existential level. Because we’re all afraid of death, we’re all dealing with it in our own way and here’s a very unusual vehicle in which to expound upon mankind’s fear of the unknown and what awaits around that inevitable corner that we’ll all turn one day.”
Gawain possibly doesn’t deal with the weight of mortality in the best way, practically signing his own death warrant in the pursuit of honour. In fact, Gawain doesn’t deal with many things in the best way… “David Lowery said that he’d created this terrible, terrible character, and the only way it would work is if he cast Dev Patel because he’s almost the only person in the world that could play him and you’d still like him at the end,” Ineson laughs. “Dev Patel’s performance is just something else. The way he takes you through this journey of this guy who makes so many bad decisions for a lead man in a movie, it’s amazing that you still like him at the end!”
Starring alongside Dev Patel is a glorious feast of British talent, with stars such as Alicia Vikander, and A24 stalwarts like Kate Dickie and Mr Ralph Ineson himself who plays the titular Green Knight.
Though this isn’t the Ralph Ineson you might recognise. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll see that he is more reminiscent of a Game Of Thrones White Walker. The Green Knight is a hulking figure, with bark-like skin and a thorny crown. So it understandably took a lot of time and effort to get that look right. “Physically it was very hard to do,” Ineson tells us. “You can’t play a part like that with practical prosthetics and costumes and without the help of CGI, without it being a tough physical experience [but] you have to accept that when you sign up for it.
“But I was wonderfully looked after by everybody on set. Costume people and makeup people, the prosthetics team, who I worked with on all the makeup because that was three and a half hours every morning to put on and then there’s contact lenses and then there’s the costume and then you get on a horse [haha]!
“So, yeah it was it was tough, but it’s also a really great privilege because you can see all the way through from the tests that you do with the makeup that you’re working with the best people in the world. The things that they’re doing are just incredible. To have the opportunity to be the person who gets to bring that to light is a real privilege. So it’s certainly worth a few days of discomfort when you see their work come to light!”
Speaking of seeing that work come to light, when Lowery saw his creation for the first time, he knew he was on to something special: “Creating The Green Knight was incredibly stressful because we had so little time to get him right,” Lowery remembers. “Because makeup took so long to actually build, we didn’t see him until three days before we started shooting with him, and it was just one of those things where it was like ‘I hope this works, I hope this works’ and then it worked and it was a beautiful, beautiful thing. To see Ralph in that makeup for the first time was breathtaking.”
Luckily for Ineson, the prosthetics on his face didn’t overly hinder his performance. Though The Green Knight’s face looks as hard a rock, it was in fact very malleable: “The thing that David was keen to reassure me about is that he wanted a performance that worked with the prosthetics, rather than me wearing a mask, and voicing a character within a mask, which was great.
“To be honest I was excited enough to play the character and just voice it. But we worked with Barrie Gower and his team. The amazing thing about it is all around the eyes, and certain parts of the nose and even around the head, is as thin as a condom.
“On the side of my nose it’s so thin I could use that whole side, all the skin on my nose all the stuff around my eyes, down the cheeks… I could make that all that move in a normal way, and I didn’t have to pantomime my face at all. It all moved so well with the face. It was so well fitted!”
The Green Knight isn’t the only mythical creature young Gawain meets on his adventures, the movie is full of fantastical elements and characters. Don’t be expecting one of those true-to-life, grounded takes on Arthurian lore. This is purely fantasy and proud of it! “I wanted there to be magic in this movie. I wanted there to be as much spectacle as I could afford basically. I wanted it to be a big movie!” Lowery laughs. “I love being taken to another universe. I didn’t want this to just be a muddy 14th century drama. I wanted this to exist in a slightly heightened more Tolkien-esque universe in which there is magic around every corner, in which there are giants, in which there are creatures that exist beyond our earthly realm.
“So I tried to put as much of that as I could into the movie, as much as would fit into the story, while also always using the poem as a jumping off point.
The poem, when you read it, mentions (depending on which translation you read) either giants or ogres and as soon as I saw it I was like ‘okay great, we’re going to have giants in this movie!’ Anything I could pull from there that was somewhat magical, fantastical, I would. I tried to give the world itself a scope that felt otherworldly and magical because that’s the stuff that appeals to me as an audience member.”
As with any good magical fantasy, it comes complete with courts and ancient castles. However, when it came it the film’s look, Lowey wanted to go into a different direction than you would expect, with Gawain’s tragic journey framed by a stark, sombre landscape.
“That stark look, that simplicity was something that we knew we wanted. We didn’t want it to be a busy world we didn’t want to have like lots of tchotchkes cluttering the screen.
“We kept thinking about Ken Russell’s The Devils, with Derek Jarman as the art director. We thought about the sets that he designed, which had this incredibly sterile look to them. We didn’t want that sterility, but we wanted that simplicity and so that was a touchstone that I kept bringing up. I just wanted that simplicity that you see in that city when Oliver Reed is going to his death in that movie. That world, that citadel that they had built was just so distinct and didn’t feel real and yet was entirely talked out the same time.”
That simplicity is no less beautiful, with frequent bright shots of colour permeating the sombre grey marshes that Gawain slowly trots along as he meets his untimely fate. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in a long time,” Ineson enthuses. “It’s wonderful. The design, the cinematography is incredible and it’s so, so good and so beautiful to look at as well. I can’t wait to see it in a cinema again myself. It’s one of the few ones that I’d rush back to see. Especially in a cinema.”
Ah yes, The Green Knight was originally supposed to have its premier at the SXSW Film Festival in March 2020, followed by a theatrical release in May of that year. But due to the Covid-19 pandemic cancelling that festival and, well, pretty much cancelling 2020 altogether, The Green Knight has been shifted to 2021 and will be released both theatrically and on Amazon Prime Video.
Whether you finish the movie by walking out of the cinema or by switching off your viewing device, you’re sure to be thinking about The Green Knight long after he’s left you: “I think it’s a film that lives with you and it lives in your head, because it leaves you with lots of questions,” Ineson says. “David Lowery is the kind of director who doesn’t hold your hand and tell you what’s what. Lots of weird stuff happens. I just hope people walk away with lots of questions and that they keep thinking about the film.
“Those are the kind of films that I love. They stay with you for a while and in a daydream a couple of days later you go ‘ahhh, maybe that?!’. I hope it’s a film that people love to be immersed in for the two hours that they’re watching it because it’s an amazing visual and sound experience. I just hope it lives with them afterwards, which is what you want from all good movies, I think.”
For a movie that deals with the heavy burden of mortality and inevitability of death, Lowery hopes that audiences take away a hopeful vibe from the movie: “I hope they’re happy,” he tells us. “I wanted the movie to be oddly optimistic. It ends in a very…. I don’t want to say that it’s open ended because everything I wanted to say in the movie is there at the end, and it may take some parsing out, it may take some thinking about, but ultimately I wanted this to be a happy ending. I think it is a happy ending.
“I hope audiences, even if they don’t understand necessarily why right away, because it is rather abrupt when the movie comes to an end, I hope that they’re left with a lingering feeling of positivity and peace. That’s a good thing, that’s a beautiful thing, and it makes me smile. So I hope audiences leave with a smile. And as to why they’re leaving with a smile, that’s for them to discover…”
Discover that smile for yourself when The Green Knight lands on Amazon Prime Video and in cinemas on 24 September. (All photo credits: Eric Zachanowich)