I had been anticipating reviewing A24’s The Green Knight for a long, long time. Early on into my writing tenure on this website, I posted an article about the first trailer. That was in February of 2020, just as the world decided to let a plague run rampant. More than a year later, the film has finally arrived.
Did The Green Knight live up to my expectations? Yes, very much so. The Green Knight is my favorite movie of 2021. So if you just want someone to tell you to go see it, then you have your answer. But why is it so good?
Before we continue, take a moment to enjoy the trailer.
The Green Knight (2021) is an adaptation of the classic, anonymously written Arthurian poem “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.” The film is not necessarily a horror film, but there is horror present with ghosts, impending death, and the unforgiving relentlessness of nature. There are enough arguments one can make to include the film into the horror canon, however. The Green Knight is a film that will challenge most viewers. Perhaps to its detriment when it comes to a general audience. However, it is a challenge worth accepting, much like the Christmas game of the film.
The film’s synopsis is fairly simple: Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, seeks glory. During a Christmas celebration, Arthur challenges his court for a legend or adventure. The Green Knight, a monstrous figure resembling the Green Man, enters and offers a challenge. Anyone may strike a blow against him, but in one year, they must meet him at his Green Chapel so that he may return the blow. Gawain takes on the challenge with a shocking result. As such, he must live up to his end of the challenge, traveling to meet The Green Knight.
The film is the work of writer and director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story), who also takes on editing and producer roles. Dev Patel stars as the tested Sir Gawain, with Ralph Ineson as the titular Green Knight. Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, and Erin Kellyman round out the cast. The Green Knight is produced by Ley Line Entertainment, Bron Studios, and Sailor Beat, and distributed by A24.
What Worked with The Green Knight
The overall adaptation of the classic poem is equally faithful and divergent. This fits given the centuries of debate on interpretations of the tale by English theorists and Arthurian scholars. The original poem is subject to many translations, all affected by the translator’s views. Just as a reader will bring their own perspective to the poem, this film is the same in that regard.
David Lowery’s approach to the story definitely creates an underlying message of what it is meant to be seen as chivalrous and the crushing weight of expectations, internal and external. However, the interpretation will vary from viewer to viewer. Like the work of the original Gawain Poet, Lowery’s approach allows for leeway and interpretation.
The performances are fantastic across the cast, but the buzz around Dev Patel’s Gawain is well deserved. Patel’s Gawain is a screw-up. More of a child than a man who expects greatness and desires to be a knight but fumbles about, misunderstanding and misapplying the chivalric code. Patel is instantly likable despite Gawain’s flaws and has a charismatic presence that endears Gawain to the viewers, even at his weakest moments.
Ralph Ineson’s commanding presence as The Green Knight is impressive, particularly given the relatively limited screentime he has. Much like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Ineson’s appearances are brief but memorable. Sarita Choudhury’s character, the mother of Gawain, presents an interesting deviation from the original tale, but not entirely unwelcome. She plays mysterious well. Alicia Vikander takes on a pair of roles, each vital, and carries them well. Not a poor performance in the lot.
The cinematography of Andrew Droz Palermo is stunning, as is composer Daniel Heart’s Music. This film will be worthy of study in the future.
What Didn’t Work with The Green Knight
As a whole, this film delivers wonderfully. However, there are two aspects of it I found somewhat troublesome. Not troublesome enough to harm my estimation of The Green Knight. But there are areas that I felt could have been reigned in further or perhaps clarified more.
I have no issues with Lowery’s deviations from the “canon” of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” as much as anything regarding the poem can be considered canon. But I do feel in his own quest to make his mark that the film takes a long way around to give Gawain his moment of pure, unselfish chivalry finally. The chapter of the film, each of which is title carded, gives away the trick. While I appreciate Lowery’s narrative move to a degree, knowing the title card of the sequence undercut the potential shock of the sequence. This is rendered starker with the rather brutalist ending that ultimately leaves the film somewhat unresolved.
I try not to carry my expectation of what I consider the tale to be and to go along with Lowery’s take. Yet, I cannot help but think something about the ending is amiss. It may just be my knowledge of the poem that will never let me be completely impartial. But then again, this may also be an issue of interpretation. I wonder if perhaps Lowery went a bit too open-ended? Despite these misgivings, however, as petty as they might be, the film is still very much a triumph. It is a singularly excellent Arthurian adaptation.
The Final Verdict
David Lowery’s medieval–themed rumination of chivalry is a stunning movie that enchants and mystifies. The Green Knight is fully deserving of five out of five Cthuluhs.(5 / 5)
The Green Knight is a film I will be seeing in the nearby movie theater at least a couple more times. It is that good and worth experiencing again and unraveling. This may not be the last I write on it, either, because even having seen it, I find myself asking… is Gawain truly heroic?