Arthurian tales have always been a wealth of resources for story-tellers through the years. Yet, we keep getting the same old stories or Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Merlin being told over and over again. Different takes on the same point of legend get old, pretty fast. Enter David Lowery, with his interpretation of the anonymously written epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Can this lesser known tale create a new path for medieval based cinema?
Gawain (the always enjoyable, Dev Patel) is a bit of loser. The nephew to King Arthur is a drunk, and spends most of his time in the brothel while telling his mother he as been at church the entire time. But Gawain’s true ambition is to be a knight, serving under his king. On one Christmas Eve, at the round table, Arthur requests Gawain sit by his side and regale him with tales of his life. With nothing to offer, Gawain feels his chances of being something more in life, slip away.
Until the Green Knight comes knocking on the hall door with an offer. If anyone in the hall would step up and attack the knight, he will let them do so. In return, one year later, the one who stepped up to the challenge meet the Green Knight in the Green Chapel. At that time, the Knight will return the “favor,” by cutting the attacker back in the same vein that he attacked the Knight.
I don’t want to ruin anything for those who have not read the poem, or know the story. But, I’m sure you know which person in that hall stood up and agreed to the deal. The majority of The Green Knight is understandably spent following Gawain as he travels to meet the Knight, one year later. Unlike the poem though, the honor and nobility of the main character is non-existent.
This is totally fine, though. Just because you’re adapting a written work, doesn’t mean you need to re-tell it, exactly. David Lowery is choosing to use this tale and twist it to show a man who thinks he is noble, but is not. The original story is about a man who is already a Knight and shows his nobility throughout, but for one small item that ends up allowing him to learn his lesson in the end. However, the film really plays up the point of this being inspired by the “chivalric romance.” It leans so heavily into it, that all you can think while watching it is, “who is the chivalric one?”
As presented here, Gawain is a supremely naïve man who constantly enters into contracts and situations with never fully understanding them. Yes, he is going to learn a lesson, but the poem is meant to work more like an old fable. The actions and outcome need to balance out. The film instead is 2 hours of a fool who even when he learns the lesson, doesn’t deserve it.
The Green Knight certainly is stunning to look at. It’s a gorgeously shot film, but littered with unnecessary tidbits. Title cards in varying calligraphic fonts offer information that can be gleamed by dialogue just seconds later after they appear. Jokes sprinkled without seem out of place and awkward. And for those who went head over heels making fun of the talking fox in Anti-Christ are going to have a field day with The Green Knight.
The film kicks off in a most promising way. The interaction between Patel’s Gawain and Sean Harris as King Arthur before the Green Knight arrives is wonderful and mesmerizing. Only to be taken over by a bloated mid-section that ends with Lowery sinking back into his A Ghost Story mode of cinema for the finale.
In the poem, Gawain’s journey from point A to point B consists of just one real stop, which doesn’t appear till the latter portion of the film in the section with Joel Edgerton. This is where the poem sets out its moral dilemma. While the story device of a green sash exists and plays a major part of the film’s story, it could have been highlighted in a different way to make for a better allegory between the poem’s original intent, and the film’s new purpose for the story. It really is hard to talk about in detail without going into a 5,000 word spoiler discussion. This however, is where I think Lowery stepped too far out of bounds in this attempt.
One can sit and muse about the more modern depiction of manhood and machismo that The Green Knight is trying to portray, and be happy with the outcome. But as an experience, in the moment, The Green Knight is a hilly journey that feels a little too full of itself. Much like Gawain, The Green Knight doesn’t fully understand what it was heading into, even if it got there in the end.
Final Grade: B-
Here’s the trailer of the film.