‘The Green Knight’ (2021) Review

Madeline Choi reviews the fantasy/adventure of King Arthur’s stubborn nephew who wants to fight a mysterious giant from Camelot, the Green Knight.

Based on Chaucer’s 14th Century chivalric romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, David Lowery brings one of the most bizarre yet compelling explorations of the medieval tale to the big screen. Following King Arthur’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel), the epic is centered around a “Christmas Game” in which Gawain embarks on a quest to confront his arranged death at the hands of the Green Knight. Ostensibly, the film follows a traditional coming-of-age formula where the film explores the physical and psychological journey and subsequent transformation that Gawain undertakes. Director David Lowery, extending from his take on the meaning of death in 2017’s A Ghost Story, uses the fantasy genre and magic realism in preoccupation with what the Green Knight symbolizes

The opening scenes of the film present Gawain on Christmas day, woken up by his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander), attending the King’s Christmas feast. Requested by the king to sit by his side, Gawain is asked to tell a tale but is interrupted by the summoning of the Green Knight. Deviating from the original Medieval tale, Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) assumes the role of Gawain’s mother and is ambiguously presented as the one to bring the Green Knight to King Arthur’s court, kickstarting his voyage. The Green Knight seals Gawain’s fate by trading his head for Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel due in exactly a year’s time. The first half of the film not only depicts Gawain’s rather feeble relationships with his lover, his mother, and his aunt and uncle but his dissatisfaction with his own self as Patel comments “I think he is definitely a flawed individual…the idea of not belonging, this kind of imposter syndrome amongst the Knights of the Round Table”.

Gawain (Dev Patel) and Essel (Alicia Vikander)

The film seems to make zero sense when consumed literally. The cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo and the music by Daniel Hart go hand-in-hand in creating a fantastical, somewhat offbeat world. Interpreted as the turning point, the halfway mark of the film showcases a 360-degree pan as Gawain is left to die in a forest, after running into young scavengers. The slow, dramatic pan evokes great suspense as the audience is left to guess Gawain’s fate. The sounds of flies accompanied by the gradual shot of his corpse showcase that Gawain is unable to escape death. The final scene of the film utilizes another slow pan as Gawain’s possible future flashes before his eyes. Similar to the first 360 pans, Gawain is unable to escape death as he lives a long yet fruitless life with the only difference being that his death is in the hands of time. This is not the Director’s first time exploring the meaning of decay and death, as seen in his 2017 film A Ghost Story. Similar to his commentary on the role of death in living a meaningful life in A Ghost Story, The Green Knight presents the audience with the active role of death in Gawain’s life. Both Gawain and the audience quickly learn that the fear the Green Knight instills is not because of death directly, but rather a meaningless life escaping from such death.

Paralleling the first 360 pans, the lady (Alicia Vikander) of the Lord’s house delivers a monologue accompanied by the same audio cues of the flies surrounding Gawain’s corpse. In this monologue, the Lady explores why the Knight is green: “Red is the color of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb. Green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies, when we die, too”. The film uses green as a motif to signal the idea that there is new life out of death. After removing the sash given to him by his mother, Gawain seems to be ready to accept his death, gaining courage to face what is in front of him. In turn, the audience learns that the “Christmas Game” was not a game in escaping the Green Knight and death but rather, about the attitude towards death and the role death plays in living life with courage.

The Green Knight

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lowery says “I would ask them to consider the weight of integrity versus legacy, and what the value of those two concepts mean to them as an individual” in response to what the audience should take away in the broader sense of this film. With its slow place and underlying erotic tone, the revisionist telling of The Green Knight ends with an up-in-the-air ending for Gawain’s fate. The fever dream-like journey that Gawain uptakes with the cold, green-tinted visual of the film somewhat undermines the very raw, intimate message that Lowery delivers. The enchanted world and eerie sets establish a clear distance between the viewer and the film up until the final scene, where we are asked to take a peek into what Gawain’s life would look like without courage. Perhaps its main reason for criticism, the film’s first act, riddled with extremely slow pacing, hesitates in exploring the deeper themes of the film. However, overall, the film places great emphasis on the themes of chivalry and legacy, escaping confrontation, and genuine self-realization, which all call for multiple rewatches to fully appreciate the beauty of the film’s message.

The star-studded cast delivers breathtaking performances that bring this medieval quest to life. Dev Patel showcases a vulnerable, slow-burn take on the character of Gawain which takes away from the seeming fantasy genre of the film, adding immense depth that asks for the audience’s emotional investment. Most notably, Alicia Vikander delivers a sensuous performance through her dual role of Gawain’s lover and the seductive Lady. With her screen presence heightening the tension of the film to its peak, she delivers one of the most indulging monologues of the year.

The film’s greatest strength can be taken away from Lowery’s invitation to the audience to embark on the journey with Gawain. The Arthurian film intertwines ideas of self-realization, seduction, fear, death, and courage with its lavish cinematography and striking performances.

The Green Knight is out right now:

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