My opening night screening of “The Green Knight” was an uncharacteristically crowded one for these pandemic times, and as I stood outside the theater for a few minutes afterward, listening to other audience members react to what we had just seen, I realized that it sounded like almost everyone had a similar response: that they enjoyed the movie, but didn’t really understand it. Arthurian legends are some of the most retold and familiar stories in history, but writer and director David Lowery’s adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th century poem by an anonymous author, isn’t going to be a crowd-pleaser. But for those who do successfully fall under its spell, it’s a marvel from start to finish: a lush film with captivating performances that both embraces the themes explored in the legend, while expanding on and introducing some new ones.
The Green Knight of the title (a sort of tree-man, played by Ralph Ineson) enters King Arthur’s court on Christmas Day. He presents the King (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) with a game involving an exchange of blows. Arthur’s nephew, an aspiring knight called Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), eagerly rises to meet the challenge, and chops off the Green Knight’s head in one fell swoop. But the Knight is not dead; rather, he picks up his head, and iterates that he expects to meet with Gawain in one year so that he may deliver the returning blow. As the next Christmas approaches, Gawain—who has been celebrated by his peers since that day—ventures out on a journey to the Green Chapel to meet with the Green Knight, and faces a series of adventures along the way that test his honor.
There’s a lot to dig in to with “The Green Knight” and as of this writing I’ve only gotten to see the film once, so forgive me for what will likely be a fairly surface level analysis. But one of my first thoughts as the credits rolled was how different the story felt from the Arthurian myths that I’m familiar with (and believe me when I say that I’m no expert). The thoughts that Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table conjure are those of brave and chivalrous knights clad head to toe in armor, riding swiftly and selflessly into battle to defend their kingdom. It’s clear from the very opening scene of “The Green Knight” that this is what Sir Gawain—who we watch field questions like “Are you a knight yet?” from others as he rushes from his mistress’ chambers—aspires to be. But just because that image of the heroic, masculine ideal is what Gawain wants, doesn’t mean that that’s what he is. Throughout his quest, he is faced with challenges and temptations, and frequently falters or outright fails. Patel turns in a rich performance that conveys every turn that Gawain’s personality takes, whether in the inflections in his voice or the concern or fear or coldness or passion in his eyes. When we first meet Gawain, he is brash, and clearly not fully considering the consequences of his actions. By the time we leave him at the end of the film, he has made some peace with his actions and his fate, but in this story, bravery and honesty do not translate to redemption. He may be seemingly gallant, but he is no hero.
One of the temptations that Gawain is presented with throughout the story is embodied by Alicia Vikander in a dual role. First, she plays Esel, a relatively plain woman of no means who wants Gawain to make her his lady. Later in the film, she plays the intelligent and gorgeous lady of a castle Gawain stays at toward the end of his journey, and the wife of the castle’s lord, played by an utterly delightful Joel Edgerton (when is Joel Edgerton ever not utterly delightful though?). Like Esel, the Lady also seeks Gawain’s affections, and as with Esel, Gawain does attempt to reject her. The scene between Gawain and the Lady in his bedroom is a pivotal moment in the poem, and while it is approached a bit different in the film, it is no less momentous. It’s one of a few moments where we witness the undercutting of Gawain’s masculinity, but it’s also the one that most sets in motion the trajectory of Gawain’s journey for the remainder of the film. Vikander molds her voice and mannerisms to perfectly fit each character, flipping between lowly guttersnipe and elegant lady but imbuing them both with some shared features, namely the power they wield over Gawain.
Another prevalent theme in the film is one that Lowery has explored in his other movies: that of man versus nature. For all the progress that civilization makes, there will always be an eventual reckoning with nature. For King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and the rest of Camelot, it comes when the Green Knight—as mentioned before, a literal tree-man—enters their space. Throughout his quest, Gawain comes across creatures and animals (namely a friendly fox, one that I took to be a symbol of Gawain), and when he meets the Lord, hunting becomes an integral aspect of their interactions. When Gawain finally arrives at the Green Chapel, it stands in stark visual contrast to the cold, dark, grey interiors of the castle that the Green Knight first met him at at the start of the film. The building of the Green Chapel itself is crumbling and overrun with greenery, and everything is bathed in a queasy yellow light.
In his previous films, Lowery has demonstrated a use of shots to quickly and clearly manipulate time and reality, most notably in his 2017 movie “A Ghost Story,” which I coincidentally watched right before seeing “The Green Knight.” We see that technique applied here as well, along with a strong use of sound, outside of Daniel Hart’s incredible score. As the original poem drew on influences from a few different sources, the production (Jade Healy) and costume design (Malgosia Turzanska) of this movie appears to as well; “The Green Knight” doesn’t look like any other movie set in medieval England that I’ve seen before, and the unique and elaborate headpieces and gowns and garb that eschews the typical knight’s armor in particular blew me away. The special effects enhance rather than inhibit the magic, and the cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo made me truly grateful to have the opportunity to see this on the big screen; the sweeping landscapes, misty lakes, and solemn woods are breathtaking to behold.
There’s still quite a bit of “The Green Knight” that I’m wrestling with trying to extract meaning from, namely a haunting scene in which Gawain meets a woman played by Erin Kellyman (an instant scene-stealer), and another encounter with a tricky scavenger (played by Barry Keoghan). Perhaps I’ll get something more, or something different, out of “The Green Knight” the next time I watch it. In fact, I know I will. One of the wonderful things about this film is that it is on a surface level engaging and entertaining with its stunning set-pieces, magnetic cast, and lyrical pacing that feeds the story to us slowly but steadily. But it’s also chock full of themes and symbolism to dig in to if you really want to. “The Green Knight” won’t land for everyone, but for those it does, it is pure cinematic magic.
Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated R.