One year hence.
The adventures and romances of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have been enchanting and captivating audiences for years, fostering a global fanbase and pop culture immortality that goes far beyond its humble beginnings. From the classic Sword in the Stone to Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail, Hollywood has always found substantial worth within the pages of Arthurian myth. But in the most recent silver screen adaptation of Arthurian legend, audiences may find themselves both in awe and isolation. David Lowery's The Green Knight retells the noble quest of Arthur's nephew, Sir Gawain, in a way that deviates heavily from the notoriously action-packed and thrilling adaptations that came before it, looking to remain painstakingly faithful to the aesthetic of its source material. Lowery's retelling of the classic tale proudly stands as one of cinema's most impressive Arthurian adaptations yet, with a glaringly obvious emphasis on setting that is capable of both enchanting and alienating its audience. For better, or worse, The Green Knight will leave you at a loss for words as a film too bold to forget.
"Tell me a tale of yourself, so that I may know thee". This simple request is the one that sets the basis for David Lowery's adaptation of the tale of Gawain and The Green Knight. The request, made by Sean Harris' King Arthur, leaves protagonist Gawain (Dev Patel) at a loss, for he has nought to tell his famous uncle of himself other than his drunken nights out, spent in the company of commoners and courtesans. But this is also what spurs young Gawain into action when the mysterious and monstrous Green Knight rides into Arthur's court, determined to undermine the King's honour and prestige. In the films most dramatic and intense sequence, the treelike figure challenges any Knight in the court to deal him a blow, on the condition that he may deal the same blow one year hence. Gawain sees this menacing challenge as the chance to finally live up to his uncle's, and his own, expectations of greatness, leaping at the opportunity to finally prove himself. He proceeds to relieve the knight's head from his body, thinking himself the victor, only for regret to rapidly sink in as the knight lifts his head from the floor, and rides cackling off into the night. It is this instigating moment, along with The Green Knight's ominous opening that sets the tone for the entire film.
Almost every part of The Green Knight is covered head to toe in a thick layer of subtext, both in a narrative and philosophical context. This is reflected best in the films drab and washed-out colour palette, which paints the decaying stone walls and towers of Camelot in various shades of deathly grey. Some characters share this characteristic, as even the mighty King Arthur and his Lady Guinevere are shown to be crumbling under the weight of time, with sallow, wrinkled skin and a few too many grey hairs. But the film contrasts its greys and pale hues with the vibrant attire of young Gawain, and the numerous greens of his terrifying acquaintance, emphasising both Gawain's youth and the everlasting power of nature itself in an ultimately dying world. It is here that The Green Knight's central themes start to become more apparent, quickly positing the film as a tale of life, death, and the inseparable relationship between the two. For anyone that isn't an English literature student, these themes are made blatantly obvious come The Green Knight's dramatic finale, which presents its central message in a manner so provocative and clear, that you'll be left speechless and maybe still a little confused. It's a film that says a lot while saying impressively little, which is no small feat, doing so with performances more physical than vocal, writing more descriptive than straightforward, and a setting more meaningful than meaningless.
As such, much of the film's storytelling is rooted in its awe-inspiring visuals and cinematography. Every shot, scene, and sequence feels like a moving mosaic, meticulously crafted to produce elegant panoramas populated by figures dressed head-to-toe in larger than life garments and finery. But even when lords, ladies, and unsavoury travellers are out of the picture, there remains an array of stunning sights worth every ounce of your attention. Lowery and Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo invoke the artistry and style of medieval iconography to conjure up a mystical depiction of Britain characterised by the dark corners of regal castles, gloomy forests, and the warm colours of the verdant Green Chapel. Gawain's journey is thus personified by the bleak and beautiful locales he passes through on his way to meet the Green Knight. Every stage of his quest is thus easily made a marker, a point in the film that feels alive, distinct and ultimately memorable. In this regard, The Green Knight feels less like a screenplay and more like traditional prose, awash with vivid description and verbose language. All of this comes together to produce an adventure that is both dreamlike and grounded, juxtaposing the magical and mundane to produce a world characterised by horrific beauty. This, in every respect, is where The Green Knight seeks to captivate and hopefully inspire all those daring enough to sit through its almost 3-hour long runtime. But this is also something that may very well be to the film's detriment.
Impressive as the movie's artistry may be, it feels as though it panders to a very specific and perhaps niche audience; as well as itself. That is because, in spite of its flamboyant and beautiful imagery, it is far from entertaining. Significant portions of the film are taken up by slow and often quiet moments where Gawain traverses various landscapes with nothing but the film's score to break the silence. Even at the best of times, where the film's visual prowess and environmental storytelling really shine, it's still hard to call it entertaining. Appealing, sure, but not entertaining. This emphasis on pursuing the perfect shot becomes its biggest strength and weakness, impressing those who can appreciate its abundance of creativity and boring anyone hoping for even the faintest bit of action. Because of this, The Green Knight feels far more suited to a film festival than a cinema screen, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you're looking for something to fill you with excitement, you may be better off watching something else.
That being said, The Green Knight is an incredible adaptation of the chivalric poem it's based upon, even if it takes some liberties with the narrative. Both The Green Knight's opening and ending are practically identical to its poetic counterpart, which should be more than enough to satisfy enthusiasts and fans alike. But there are certain parts where the film deviates from its source material in favour of its more bleak interpretation. These welcome revisions reimagine Gawain's quest into one more about courage rather than honour, even if the two still go hand in hand. These bring a surprising and often unsettling touch of subtle horror to the film that really does go a long way in terms of presentation and storytelling. Thus, for Gawain, his quest becomes as much about surviving a terrifying ordeal as much as it is a quest for self-discovery, in a film that turns this typically noble fable into a surreal fever dream.
But what completes The Green Knight is its exceptional array of talented cast members, who in the brief moments they are allowed to perform, do so masterfully. In the same way characters look fantastical and fictitious, so too do they act like it, carefully choosing their words, gestures, and tone to match their storybook personas. The care taken with each interaction and conversation is but another reflection of Lowery's descriptive approach to the film, inserting very few moments where characters actually speak, let alone have someone to speak to. But when they do it is spellbinding, with conversations and speeches more poetic than plain, bolstered by a deliberate use of romanticised English to really give them that theatrical flair. Dialogue and character development might not be a primary concern in this tale, but Lowery still ensures that the film's characters remain crucial and detailed parts of a bigger picture that would otherwise be incomplete without them.
The grand and somewhat dramatic speech given by Sean Harris' King Arthur is but one example of how important even the smallest character moments are to the entire film. But it is not just Harris that gets his time to shine, as every cast member, such as Alicia Vikander, Barry Keoghan, and Joel Edgerton, are given brief, but incredibly impactful moments in the spotlight that are nothing short of mighty. The Green Knight easily has some of the best performances I've seen in a long time, making me wish the film featured more interactions between its wonderful characters, as it was these moments that the film was at its most engaging.
But the best performance in the entire film comes of course from Gawain himself, Dev Patel.
It's hard not to sympathise with Gawain, thanks not just to Patel's performance, but also due to the physical and mental toll his quest has on him; in addition to the fact that he is a young man plagued by uncertainty and insecurity. Patel eloquently paints a complex portrait of a reckless, impulsive and uncertain young knight through an unparalleled physicality; combining an evocative use of body language and facial expression to convey his every sorrow, sadness, and dread in stunning depth and detail. Despite being given very few opportunities to reveal himself through dialogue, Patel plays his role of Gawain to perfection, making this without a doubt his best performance yet, and one that is more than enough reason to see this film.
The Green Knight is far from what you might expect, proving to be one of the most polarising Arthurian adaptations ever made. This comes down to the fact it is poetry masquerading as cinema, which is incredibly compelling, breathtaking, and off-putting. Had it focussed less on its artistic pursuits and more on its remarkable cast, it may have struck the perfect balance as an equally faithful and entertaining adaptation. That being said, The Green Knight ultimately delivers as a strangely grim and beautiful recreation of its source material, setting an exciting new precedent for the Arthurian genre through stunning visuals, a haunting soundtrack, and powerful performances; the likes of which you'll rarely find anywhere else.