The Arthurian legends has existed for thousands of years, yet its timeless tale still inspires contemporary storytellers to this very day. There have been plenty of interpretation/retelling and the most recent one I watched was the Netflix TV series Cursed (sadly the show isn’t renewed for another season), which focuses on a teenage sorceress who encounters more well-known characters from the legend on her journey, such as Arthur himself, wizard Merlin and knight Lancelot. This time, writer/director David Lowery focuses on a lesser-known character, Sir Gawain.
One of the main reasons this new retelling appeals to me is the casting of Dev Patel as Gawain, as I’ve talked about in this post and its follow-up. Right from its opening scene it’s apparent this wouldn’t be your typical Arthurian adaptation. It’s a wide shot of Gawain wearing a crown, sitting on a throne in an empty hall holding a scepter… as the camera zooms in closer to him, his crown is on fire and then his head suddenly burst into flames.
We’re so used to seeing knights as being galant, chivalrous and basically all heroic, but here we see young, disheveled Gawain as anything but. Granted he’s not a knight yet at this point, but even as a regular guy you could say he’s pretty
unambitious lazy. We first see him awaken inside a brothel on Christmas day, preferring to stay in bed with his lover Essel than attend mass, much to the chagrin of his mother (Sarita Choudhury). Now, Gawain himself is quite aware he’s no hero. When he’s later summoned by his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) and he asks him to tell him a story, he replied that he has none to tell. ‘Yet,’ said sympathetic Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) who somehow believes in this young man, perhaps more so than Gawain believes in himself.
But soon his chance to prove himself comes soon enough during a feast at the Round Table with the visit from the mysterious Green Knight. He challenges the king and his knights to a morbid ‘game’ that involves beheading his head to win his magical green axe. The catch is they must travel to the Green Chapel the following Christmas to accept the same blow in return. Gawain ends up taking up the challenge and the film follows the one-year journey to meet his fate. I thought it’s interesting that Lowery actually uses title cards to break some of the eventful moments during the journey, perhaps an homage to how books are broken down in chapters.
The film sure isn’t lacking in style and visual panache. Lowery decidedly makes a visual poetry with imaginative camera work, atmospheric tone and gorgeous production design + costumes. DP Andrew Droz Palermo would likely nabs a bunch of awards for his tremendous cinematography here. I always appreciate films that feels authentic and filming on location in Ireland certainly gives that gritty vibe. Now I have mixed feelings about the sound design and score by Daniel Hart though. It does have a haunting quality and fits the tone and visual style really well, but the string-heavy score gets pretty aggravating by the end.
The look of the ginormous green knight himself in particular is really striking and he’s made quite an entrance–and exit–while carrying his own head as he rides his horse. I have to say though, I wish the film weren’t SO dark, though obviously using mostly natural light inside those Medieval castle naturally makes everything look dim and shadowy. For some reason the showing at the local EMAGINE theater I was in was SO dark I could barely make out the details.
Yet there’s something magnetic about The Green Knight that keeps me engaged despite some of the baffling scenes (what’s with those naked female giants??) and snail-like pacing. Ironic that the title cards say ‘A Too Quick Year’ as things move pretty slowly, as if we need to ‘earn’ the moral lessons of the story as Gawain does with his quest. It’s truly a testament to Lowery’s unconventional approach to the material and the actors’ performance that I wasn’t bored with it. I read that he added plenty of VFX shots and re-edited the film during pandemic delays, so I’m curious how different the original version was to this final cut. I’m not too familiar with his filmography, but judging from his work here, he’s definitely a talented director with a bold vision and unique style. I wouldn’t call him a visionary yet, I’d need to see more of his work first. The only one I’ve seen is Pete’s Dragon though now I’m curious to check out A Ghost Story which perhaps is most similar in terms of tone to this one.
The casting is great all around. I’ve mentioned Dev Patel and he just gets better and better since the first time I saw him in Slumdog Millionaire. This isn’t the first time Patel tackles a British literature hero normally reserved for White Anglo-Saxon actors (he’s fantastic as David Copperfield) and I sure hope it isn’t the last. He’s got the charisma and range to believably depict Gawain’s various persona in the film–reckless, vulnerable, callous, etc. He’s also got that inherent likability that makes us root for him despite his vice.
In the supporting roles, Alicia Vikander is captivating in a dual role as Essel and Lady Bertilak. Her speech concerning what the color green epitomizes, that it’s the color of nature and life as well as rotten things/vomit and death, is one of my favorite scenes in the film. The set up of that scene is wonderful and you just can’t take your eyes off her. There’s also a sexually-charged scene between her and Patel that truly relies on the actors’ expression where things are implied rather than shown. Joel Edgerton as the Lord Bertilak is terrific as well in his brief scene, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Aussie actor gives a bad performance. Erin Kellyman also has a memorable scene as St. Winifred in the spookiest part of Gawain’s journey. Last but not least, Ralph Ineson is pretty wild in the title role. His gravely voice is perfect for the role and under those heavy layers of costume prosthetics, the character is immediately intimidating. Oh, lest not forget the orange Fox who accompanies Gawain for part of his journey, the furry animal has some pretty memorable moments!
I think whether or not you enjoy The Green Knight likely depends on how familiar one is with the source material. I wish I were as well-versed on it, as I decided to read up on and watch on it after the movie. There are definitely plenty of life lessons to unpack from all the metaphors, symbolism and visual poetry presented here. The ending is open to interpretation, but you could say it’s a coming-of-age of sort as Gawain is forced to ‘grow up’ by the end of his journey and learn his lessons about honor, chivalry, etc. and what it means to be a true knight.
Overall I think I appreciate this movie but it didn’t cast a magical spell on me the way some major critics has described. Perhaps the overly-dark visuals might’ve dampened my enjoyment, it also doesn’t help that the theater was SO cold I had to run to my car quick to grab a blanket, something I’ve NEVER done before. That said, I’m still glad I saw it on the big screen and highly recommend this to anyone looking for something off-the-beaten-path from the typical Hollywood offerings. The distinctive visuals alone is well worth a watch, though hopefully you find a cinema where the showing isn’t overly dark. I definitely want to revisit this film once it’s available on streaming.