Arthurian legend comes to life in this unsettling fable of man’s honour, chastity, and bravery.
Gawain, nephew of the great King Arthur, is called to the court on Christmas Day only to accept a fatal challenge from a mysterious intruder. The challenge begins a quest for young Gawain, who does not see the perils and tests before his ascent to knighthood.
The film encapsulating Arthurian legend had been hinted at for a long time now, but with the pandemic slowing down release of many productions, director David Lowery’s picture was no different. Starring Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) as Gawain, The Green Knight is a baffling, weird, and existential piece of storytelling.
Starting out, we see Gawain as a young man, sleeping around, getting drunk, only to be summoned to the king’s court during Christmas festivities. His mother is indisposed, but appears to be involved in witchcraft. During the king’s speech, an intruder breaks into the courtroom, a strange, gnarled knight made of living wood. This creature asks for a knight to challenge it: commit a blow to its body, then a year later, it will return that same blow to them. Gawain, keen to prove himself, beheads the creature…
Arthurian legends are popular in entertainment, perhaps due to their etherealness and openness to interpretation. The stories are so old, written in long lost dialects, that you can almost only interpret or simply take inspiration from it. Lowery’s film appears to be an attempt at a direct adaptation of the fable.
Which is certainly a bold decision for the director of the Pete’s Dragon remake.
But, if the audience can get over the weirdness and the moments of silent storytelling, the film is a good medieval fable story. You just might need to read up a bit on the legend of Gawain afterwards.
The film predominantly follows Gawain on his quest across the English countryside, marshes, and forests, meeting unusual friends and foes along the way. It is beautifully shot, with characters and locations frequently given a painterly look.
Dev Patel throws himself at the role, and for being the absolutely centre of the story, the film is best for it, convincing in his manner as a wayward but resolute man on an unknown journey. The supporting cast are also convincing in their roles, as often fleeting as they are, powerful moments on Gawain’s path.
It isn’t a film that explains itself, however. It isn’t a swords-and-sandals adventure with death-defying stunts and acts of heroism. Far, far from it. It is a deliberately unsettling and moody piece, verging on a horror if anything else (probably why the trailers could only present it as such) but without being as bloody, scary or grotesque as that. Even the titular Green Knight is not a Guillermo Del Toro creation, he is almost kindly in his predestined task and doesn’t monstrously terrorise anyone.
No, the film is about more existential issues, as scholars have believed the old fable to also be. It is about man’s honour, and what it means to the individual and those around them. It is about self-worth and resisting sin.
Which isn’t going to set everyone’s hearts racing, obviously.
But the film does have a very cute fox in it.
It is an experience, and it is steeped in metaphor and torment for our protagonist. Perhaps not the most memorable of films (unfortunately the most memorable bit is the frankly most egregious and meaningless) but it is definitely commendable in its visuals and in its boldness to stick as literally as possible to such an ancient fable.
If you are into medieval fantasy that are more grim and harrowing than joyous and heroic, definitely spare yourself an evening and give The Green Knight some attention.