THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)
A fantasy re-telling of the medieval story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
David Lowery’s The Green Knight (adapted from “the chivalric romance by anonymous,” otherwise known as ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’), isn’t interested in playing into the usual expectations of Arthurian legend. That alone is made clear during its impressionistic and entirely symbolic opening sequence: the newly-crowned head of protagonist Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) bursting into flames as a raspy, ominous voice echoes over the Knights of the Round Table’s hall, prophetically proclaiming this tale isn’t one of a typical noble king. And thus, in the parable that ensues (a story of one man’s struggle to prove himself as honourable in a complex, unforgiving, cosmically overwhelming world), The Green Knight valiantly proves its own worth as an elegant merging of Lowery’s existentialism with an insightful cinematic deconstruction of medieval chivalry.
Defining Lowery’s filmography solely based on stylistic elements doesn’t do justice to the variety imbued in his line of work—rather, it’s the ideas in Lowery’s films that distinguish them as unmistakably his. Whether it be through crime dramas such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) and The Old Man & the Gun (2018), the far more explicitly philosophical A Ghost Story (2017), or his live-action remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (2016), he’s continued over the years to probe at the complex yet still eminently identifiable qualities that make us human. For Lowery, that itself holds a multitude of nebulous examples, ranging from our sense of childlike imagination to the contrast between aspirational archetypes, and more nuanced realities, and the meaning our lives hold after we’re gone.
And yet, The Green Knight is different in that it’s Lowery’s most ambitious—and quite possibly most personal—effort to date. Rare is it that an epic fantasy film post-Lord of the Rings displays such a wondrous mastery of the genre and the immersive world it constructs. Even rarer is the epic fantasy film that does so in the context of faithfully adapting, yet also re-contextualizing, a pivotal piece of Arthurian literature. If the anonymous scribe of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ wrote their titular iron-clad hero as a naturally courageous warrior, absolvable of blame even in the face of deceit and shameful impulses, Lowery’s adaptation heavily deviates from that, further questioning what pure-hearted chivalry is ultimately worth in the face of fear, desire, and doubt, all while delving deep into the poem’s conflicting literary interpretations to unforgettable effect.
The first impression we have of The Green Knight‘s Sir Gawain isn’t one of a stoic and widely respected warrior, but rather that of a young man with an endearingly passionate spirit, yearning to attach honour to his name. He’s the widely mocked son of sorceress Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) and the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), the latter of whom, upon Gawain’s arrival to the Round Table on Christmas Day, confides in Gawain his regret from not being able to know him personally. When Arthur requests that Gawain tell him and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) a tale to become better acquainted, Gawain can only weakly respond, “I have none to tell,” looking with self-pity at the knights around him who have all accomplished wonders— to which Guinevere promptly retorts with a stern yet prescient, “Yet. You have none to tell yet.”
Gawain doesn’t have to wait long to find his own tale, however—as in comes the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, armed with his trademark buttery-deep voice), whose arboreal stature and formidable axe blow out the torches in the hall and causes moss to grow between the cracks of the floor. The Knight poses a friendly holiday game; a knight with “boldest of blood and wildest of heart” must land a blow against him, and in turn, a year later, the same blow will be returned to the said knight. Realizing this is his chance to cement his place in legend, Gawain steps up and brashly beheads the Knight after Arthur lends him Excalibur… but when the Knight’s disembodied head, held by his revived, decapitated body, ominously reminds Gawain, “One year hence!” and rides off into the mist, Gawain realizes his own legendary tale hasn’t yet been completed. Rather, it’s only just begun, and he now has a sprawling journey through the lands of Arthurian myth to complete if he is to fulfil his oath.
The Green Knight thrives on details and atmosphere, and it’s perhaps the most immediate thing one may notice about the film’s impeccable craft as it progresses from one breathtakingly scenic location to the next. Take, for instance, Camelot, the film’s first major setting: the whole town is covered in a wintry, hazy fog that conceals even the highest towers of King Arthur’s castle, and every beam of light that pours into its indoor locations through windows and holes takes on a halo-esque quality, accentuating the nigh-divine honour bestowed upon Arthur, Guinevere, and their Knights. Smaller details, too, like the pentangle engraved on Arthur’s pendant, deliberately incorporate major symbols from the original poem, with this specific example being historically representative of five key religious virtues necessary for medieval knights to embody.
As Gawain eventually embarks on his journey exactly one year after defeating the Green Knight, that same attention to detail and atmosphere also launches itself with full force onto the screen with each new sight and individual he encounters. Perhaps most notable among those moments and snippets of scenery is a giallo-esque lighting change to crimson red as Gawain searches underwater for the disembodied head of a certain St. Winifred (played as a spirit by Erin Kellyman), a chilling fugue of howls from a horde of giants roaming on a stretch of mountainous land, or a thick, atmospheric yellow haze engulfing the forest near the Green Knight’s chapel. The episodic nature of Gawain’s trek is only further highlighted by the thoroughly well-researched production design, stellar cinematography from Andrew Droz Palermo, and a hauntingly immersive and traditional score from Daniel Hart, all of which ensure each area Gawain travels through has a richly textured sense of identity.
Guiding Gawain’s path, of course, are the numerous figures he meets along his expedition, as well as those who he remains close to back at Camelot, each played by actors with identities as distinct as the regions they reside in. For one, Sean Harris seems to use his trademark hushed, half-wheezing voice not in service of a Machiavellian, cunning villain as in the latest two Mission: Impossible films, but rather for a sage and judicious King Arthur, wisened with age and his mythically immaculate courage. Meanwhile, Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider) brilliantly pulls off a double role in this film as both Gawain’s lover, Essel, and as the unnamed lady of a manor Gawain stumbles upon in the film’s midpoint, one that makes a deeply specific dichotomy in Gawain’s chivalrous quest all the more personal for his growth as a warrior. Of course, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton, and numerous other talents are also given their opportunities to shine, with the film’s immersion in its fantasy world remaining forever incomplete without their incredible contributions.
So who, then, fully embodies this film’s Sir Gawain and his noble, aspirational, yet now-humanely flawed spirit? For David Lowery, the answer seems to be Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), who consciously portrays Gawain with tangible glimmers of honesty amidst his active attempts at valiance and generosity. With Lowery’s reinterpretation of the noble Sir Gawain as instead a relatively lowly young man with much to prove before earning his knighthood, Patel takes the self-consciousness that inevitably emerges with this new Gawain’s grand ambitions and uses it as the driving foundation behind his multifaceted performance. Gawain’s magnanimous actions and occasional bouts of sincere courage work in service of reinforcing, oftentimes to himself, his more noble and chivalrous characteristics, but Patel does something more remarkable; he also subtly expresses the ways Gawain frequently— and understandably—breaks that bond and gives in to his deepest doubts and desires, which often lead him astray in several strikingly honest and surprising scenes.
And that may be what lies at the heart of Lowery’s Arthurian re-interpretation: a contrast of character that takes the unfettered pure-heartedness of the poem’s Sir Gawain and morphs it into a deconstructionist portrayal, questioning the merits of such honour in a complicated world where Lowery’s Gawain is constantly reminded of his insignificance. Mortality lies around every corner and in every step of Gawain’s path, and he knows this all too well; after all, the Green Knight’s figurative shadow constantly looms over Gawain’s inevitable fate, and even Vikander (playing the lady of the manor) receives a solemn monologue elaborating on how the colour green represents the detritus of life and fiery passions. Meanwhile, the somewhat disparate episodes of the film—marked with superimposed titles that use a rather clever gimmick to subtly build anticipation—bring attention to the ways Gawain’s courage and bravery are continually tested by his surroundings, but Lowery makes a point out of Gawain’s persistent uncertainty unlike anything from the original poem, and he seems to bring out of Patel a kind of deeply human vulnerability to Gawain’s apprehensions and misgivings.
Yet it’s also the film’s reverent dedication to authentically depicting the Arthurian mythos’s world that complements such a re-evaluation of one of its most esteemed chivalric principles. Medieval legends and the magic written in their pages aren’t often depicted on screen with the kind of surrealism, bizarreness, and wonder that they actually contain, and it’s with that kind of stalwart authenticity to these legends’ authorial intentions and atmosphere that The Green Knight achieves something virtually no other film of its ilk ever has, all while simultaneously elevating its rich thematic material. It’s yet another stunning work that does exactly what adaptations and remakes should strive to achieve—a film that essentially worships its foundations as it courageously forges a new, more nuanced path—and the end result is, from its gorgeous first frame to its crushingly flawless ending, quite possibly the greatest modern representation of Arthurian chivalry, as well as all of its wondrous, contradictory complexities.
IRELAND • CANADA • USA • UK | 2021 | 125 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: David Lowery.
writer: David Lowery (based on ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’).
starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Ralph Ineson & Erin Kellyman.