The Green Knight
Director: David Lowery
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Erin Kellyman, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan
Runtime: 140 minutes
Adapting a novel into a film requires a lot of thought processes and effort, but adapting a poem with an unknown author involves another level of precision, determination, and creativity. Thankfully, David Lowery has managed to craft a masterpiece from its source Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late 14th century Middle English chivalric romance poem, into a modern 21st-century reinterpretation of The Green Knight with his style. Lowery achieves to create a unique and unforgettable film that transforms the Arthurian tale of chivalry into a more digestible, epic fantasy that focuses more on a hero’s internal coming-of-age quest and successfully immerses viewers into the atmosphere of the Middle Ages with fantastical elements that are lovely to look at.
The story is about a wannabe knight Gawain (Dev Patel), nephew of King Arthur, who tries to live up to his chivalric code. During Christmas in Camelot, a mysterious Green Knight comes and barges into the castle, riding on a horse. He then comes with a curious proposition and challenges any man who is brave enough to strike him will receive the Green Knight’s ax, but that person must visit the guest a year later at Green Castle to receive the same blow in return. Because Gawain has not proven himself to King Arthur and others of his knighthood and honor, he sees this as an opportunity and challenges the Green Knight by cutting off his head. Suddenly, everyone watches the green knight get up as he gallops away with his severed head with a sinister laugh.
After a year, Gawain embarks on a quest to visit the Green Knight, only to discover that it becomes more about Gawain’s mental and emotional discovery throughout his journey. Each of the people and obstacles he encounters is there for a reason. The film profoundly examines the ideas of chivalry, honor, and knighthood in a subversive way that focuses more on his personal growth and introduces various symbolisms. In the poem, Gawain is already a knight; however, in the film, it is through his journey that Gawain has the opportunity to earn him that title. Thus, the focus is more about discovering the knight within himself rather than presenting a title or code of honor to others.
Considering that David Lowery is well-known for creating films with ambitious premises or themes, he challenges the traditional norms of knighthood in The Green Knight by using his artistic responsiveness and transports the viewers to another world with his storytelling style and mesmerizing visuals into the narrative. Having previously directed films with complex themes, such as A Ghost Story, he allows viewers to once again come up with their own interpretations instead of directly giving the audiences an answer. Lowery creates something so familiar to us with how he feels and thinks about an issue with many of his films. It’s more than just adapting myths, as Lowery focuses more on what these stories and myths mean to us and how we react to them.
Since the story focuses primarily on Gawain’s journey, the actor’s performance becomes even more critical as he must carry the entire story and plot of the film, and Dev Patel successfully does that. He approaches the role with careful nuances, and layered portrayal and depth put into his character. He portrays just the right amount of arrogance and entitlement, but beneath that façade, there is a slight sense of hope for Gawain to do the right thing and learn important life lessons of virtue, honor, and morality. Co-star Alicia Vikander, who plays two distinctly different roles, also shines as she gives a grounded performance for her character Esel. In contrast, she gives a more enigmatic and seductive performance as the Lady—especially when she offers various analogies and symbolism about the color green and reminds Gawain of his insignificance and frailty of humanity.
Aside from the themes and message itself, visually, The Green Knight generates the feel of Arthurian legend and has distinct color aesthetics that makes this film stand out. Distinct colors from gold, green, and red are the primary three-color palettes that bring out the mise-en-scene and the element of high fantasy. Also, each shot brings out a cinematic experience back to medieval times. Various rugged countryside landscapes, naked giants walking across valleys, a talking fox, and enchanted spells and magic all contribute to the hallucinatory factor that sticks with you after the film ends, making The Green Knight a fantasy masterpiece. Combined with these factors, the fluid cinematography and CGI enhance a dreamlike moment in this fantasy world. One specific scene includes when viewers see a single 180-degree shot of Gawain tied up in a forest and the camera moving around in a full rotation with the help of a time-lapse sequence.
However, even though the film provides excellent themes and messages with many open endings, because the message is too clear, it limits the audience from thinking beyond the message. For example, suppose we were to compare this to an analogy to a well-crafted sentence. In that case, it feels like the director has crafted a beautiful sentence but only to take out some of the keywords so that the audience can fill out the words in the blank. So instead of the audiences coming up with their own sentences, because the direction and the message are too distinct, all the audience has to do is fill in the empty words in the blank, limiting themselves to think beyond the sentence itself.
Still, mainly described as high fantasy, The Green Knight slowly builds up with its universal themes of chivalry and knighthood in a subversive way. Lowery deconstructs its source material by making the audience ask essential questions about the practices of traditional heroism. The Green Knight‘s gorgeous visuals and different take on its source make the film not just a typical style over substance film but tell a story in both style and substance by staying faithful to the text while subverting it, producing a fascinating hero’s journey.
The Green Knight
The Green Knight’s gorgeous visuals and different take on its source make the film not just a typical style over substance film but tell a story in both style and substance by staying faithful to the text while subverting it, producing a fascinating hero’s journey.