The Green Knight Review
The Green Knight is far from a traditional fantasy adventure movie, and is better for it.
The Green Knight bills itself as an “epic fantasy adventure” which calls to mind some specific tropes–monsters, for one, and big fight scenes. Real Lord of the Rings stuff, which is actually rather appropriate given that author J.R.R. Tolkien was a huge fan of the medieval poem the movie is based on, and even produced his own translation. Still, if you’re going into The Green Knight expecting something like HBO’s Game of Thrones, you’re likely going to have the rug pulled out from under you in the first ten minutes or so of the movie.
The Green Knight is not another King Arthur style sword-and-board romp–thankfully, it is much, much better.
Directed by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) and starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vekander, Joel Edgerton, and Ralph Ineson, The Green Knight is, in a word, dense. It tells the story of a young would-be knight, Gawain (Patel), who dreams of the type of glory and honor a person can tell great stories about. Gawain is plucky but indecisive, unable to commit to any real heroism or romance. That is, until the court of King Arthur is interrupted one day by a mysterious and monstrous visitor–a giant, plant-like knight who offers up a game: Any knight who is brave enough may strike a blow against him, with one important caveat–one year later, on Christmas day, that knight must leave camelot and seek him out so that he may return the blow in kind. Eager to prove himself, Gawain accepts the challenge and, in his enthusiasm, beheads him. This does not kill the monster, however, and Gawain is left suddenly reckoning with the reality of what he’s done, and the fact that he’s now doomed to be beheaded in kind next year.
This is all stuff from the poem, by the way, which is why it may sound a bit odd–we’re dealing with a 700+ year old, anonymously written morality tale.
With this inciting incident out of the way, the movie begins to free itself from its source material, offering new moments that are clearly inspired by, but not directly referenced in the poem. Plagued by everything from roadside bandits to encounters with ghosts and giants, Gawain’s journey to find the Green Knight’s home and make good on his end of the deal is anything but easy or linear. The movie takes an episodic approach to these moments, breaking the story up with ornately illustrated title cards that make the whole thing feel even more fairytale-like.
Between these title cards come lush, painterly scenes that linger–stretches of the movie progress quietly, without dialogue, as Patel trudges through forests or winds along on horseback. More than once, the camera sits in a static position waiting for him to catch up from a distance, giving you more than ample time to explore the foreground with your eyes for the most inscrutable details.
As these episodic encounters progress and things grow increasingly surreal, Lowery begins to ask for more and more participation from viewers. Like the source material, the movie is layered with metaphors and symbolism designed to ask questions that have no definitive answers. For example, as Gawain nears the end of his quest, he comes upon the castle home of an unnamed Lord and Lady–the Lady played by Alicia Vikander, who also plays Gawain’s sort-of girlfriend Essel back home in Camelot. This duplicate casting is never acknowledged onscreen, but the implications are abundant.
This is not the sort of movie that gives you any time to just “turn your brain off” and enjoy the ride. That said, Patel’s Gawain is definitely leading man eye candy so hopefully you won’t be too mad to engage deeply with every moment. Studio A24 has playfully released Tiger Beat-style promotional images of Sir Gawain and they are anything but false advertising. This is a great thing, given the movie’s penchant for silence and the fact that Gawain spends more than half of the runtime onscreen alone or nearly so. Patel’s performance is magnetic and harrowing, even when he’s spending whole scenes in complete silence.
The rest of the cast was not sleeping on the job, either. Vikander’s double role is responsible for most of the expository heavy lifting which she does with a sort of Shakespearean rhythm and gravitas. Ineson’s Green Knight is done, like most of the movie, entirely practically with prosthetics rather than VFX but he still manages to make a meal out of his scenes even under pounds of makeup. Even King Arthur (Sean Harris), arguably the most famous and widely adapted character in the canon of Camelot, feels entirely new and fresh, done up as an aging and sentimental monarch rather than a boyish hero.
Anyone willing to engage with and participate in The Green Knight will undoubtedly get a lot out of the experience–it is absolutely worth multiple viewings and long discussions with friends from multiple angles. Similarly, failure to actively tune in will likely result in a confusing and frustrating watch. It would be best to measure your expectations, and to go in with an open mind.