The Green Knight written and directed by David Lowery is a film that ultimately let me down. As someone who’s life has been influenced by Arthurian legends and their honorable and brave deeds I had high hopes for the A24 medieval fantasy. While a visionary work of art evoking the medieval realities of straddling both the fantastical pagan and grounded Christian world in its art, aesthetics, and music, it ultimately has its strong body severed from its head within the film’s weak writing and its revisionist lean on its source material despite having countless examples of using that source material in promotional guides and interviews. It’s akin to mostly everyone’s childhood introductions of Arthurian legend, an illustrated book that catches your eye so much you have to pick it up to see the images, but after taking in every detail, you don’t actually read the stories.
Based on the late 14th century chivalric romance and Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, the film follows the story of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and his journey of self-discovery. One Christmastide, a mysterious knight with a green visage, green armor, and a green axe challenges the knights of the round table to strike him down and if they do, they could keep his axe and they would meet the Green Knight one year hence in the Green Chapel so that he could return the exact same blow. Gawain volunteers and beheads The Green Knight, thinking he has defeated him but much to the surprise of both Gawain and the court The Green Knight picks up his severed head and reminds his foe of his avowed duty. Gawain dreads this journey of his possible imminent death but goes on after the encouragement of his uncle and his mother’s gift giving as she provides him with a sash that guarantees no harm will come to him, thus beginning his quest.
Dev Patel as Sir Gawain is often uncourteous, lustful, insecure, doubtful and full of dread in regards to his future, which he portrays well enough. There are times where we see venerability, but while they are impactful in correlation with the story, they aren’t highlighted enough. Patel is also aided by expressionist scenery and visuals that enhance his performance.
Ralph Ineson who plays The Green Knight is a stoic and intriguing character for the majority of the film but is given very little chance to play the friendly and chivalric aspect of the character that is found in the romance and mainly used for his stature and the intimidating timbre of his voice.
Sean Harris who plays King Arthur is able to capture many facets of the ideal medieval king, the compassion, the nobility and the fierce all while being put in a smaller and sickly package in the film. Like Harris’ role, there are restrictions on some characters like Joel Edgerton’s Lord, and Alicia Vikander’s Lady as well as adding in characters and whole sections that don’t apply to the story like Barry Keoghan’s role and sequence, a knight on horseback can’t take out three scavengers? Gawain refusing to help the poor, and don’t even talk about Keoghan’s first generation Irish-American 14th century accent.
The visuals and soundtrack were the most impressive parts of The Green Knight in their fidelity to portraying a “more realistic” depiction of medieval fantasy a la the tradition stemming from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but with more of an emphasis on illustrations and aesthetics from the time period. The Green Knight has some of the most beautiful shots I have seen in a medieval fantasy since The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the ultimate Arthurian adaptation, Excalibur. Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo have definitely upped the ante for future fantasy stories on the silver screen.
Although there are some great parts of their performances, the actors have very little to do within the story that was written for them. Seeing how Sir Gawain was adapted by Lowery is reminiscent of the trend of taking a gritty look at “boy scout” characters like Superman, Captain America, and now Sir Gawain as they believe modern audiences will find them uninteresting or think they can’t resonate with them. Lowery’s Gawain is antithetical to the original Gawain, in his actions, motivations and beliefs thus showing Lowery’s misinterpretation of the brilliance of the 14th century poet’s point in order to make it “appealing” to A24’s audience.
Lowery’s Gawain is a debaucherous, and unkind character that wants to be a knight of the round table, but doesn’t take any action in order to become one. He stays with a prostitute on Christmas Eve, neglects his Christmas mass and he abandons his lover despite her clear love for him. His only redeeming qualities in the film are, his admiration for his uncle and the king, his humility when people describe his deeds, and maybe the introspection he has at the end’s misguided point, but those are qualities that dull the true brilliance and subversion of the story.
The anonymous poet’s Gawain is reflective of the time he is created in; a devout, courteous, and compassionate knight who follows the romantic code of chivalry strictly, especially serving women. Throughout his quest, Gawain’s commitment to his faith is unbending as he often speaks of his love for Mary, the mother of God and specifically chooses the pentangle which originally represented the five wounds of Christ or the five virtues of chivalry, as his coat of arms. Gawain achieves feats of renown and makes a name for himself by defeating wood-trolls, ogres and wolves and is known as perfect in his five senses.
To the reader of both then and now, Gawain is another one of the exemplary knights that we all know and love with their massive amounts of power and skill combined with their love of justice and virtue, he’s a medieval superhero. That is until he comes upon a castle and is challenged to another game one in which the lord of the castle, Bertilak says that Gawain must give him all of the gifts he receives from the castle while he is away hunting.
After a few nights of being tempted by Bertilak’s wife, Gawain succumbs to her temptations as to not offend her as he still wants to adhere to his chivalric ideals and accepts both kisses and a sash that will protect Gawain from any bodily harm. Gawain the next morning gives Lord Bertilak the two kisses, but decides not to give Bertilak the sash finally breaching his seemingly super devotion to Gawain must become human in order to complete his quest by succumbing to what makes us all human, the venerability and want of something so badly that you forgo your high ideals. In the forward of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation he states; “The credibility of Gawain is enormously enhanced by it [the break in his super human like devotion to his code and church] He becomes a real man, and we can thus really admire his actual virtue.” By making him human, we admire his efforts in preserving his morals and faith up until that point that he has to break through those morals and codes because he is entrapped by their rigidity, he is no longer this infallible figure as others claim and his fellow knights to be.
Lowery’s Gawain on the other hand in this scene and throughout the whole film is utterly motivated by his lust for not only the lady, but something that is surely to preserve himself from his impending doom, holding onto those things that protect him instead of seeking them head on because of his fear of uncertainty. Lowery’s Gawain is motivated on lust for honor and his fear of death, two emotions that shun the emotional roots and theme of the original text by establishing Gawain as human in order to cater the film for today’s audience”. The original story can and still moves modern audiences to investigate the moral codes of our time especially at this time in our current cultural and sociopolitical zeitgeist. There are some parts of the story that also seemed to be picked up and hinted at, but have either lost those threads (one of which has a clear answer in the text) or muddles them in the process which will lead to audiences being unsure of how the story abruptly ends if they do not know the context or the original ending.
Characters like the romance’s Gawain are interesting in their both actual and allegorical aspects which is why they are still appealing to audiences seven hundred plus years later without their modernfications. Like most Arthurian legends that are adapted for a modern audience, The Green Knight stuns visually, but ultimately lets the audience down by not being able to capture the heart of the original texts.