'The Green Knight' Is a Bold, Gorgeous Retelling of Arthurian Legend
Director David Lowery turns the chivalric romance of Sir Gawain on its head.
Thanks to decades, centuries even, of retellings and reimaginings of King Arthur lore, from the Fisher King and the Holy Grail to Merlin and Morgan le Fay to Sir Pellinore and his Questing Beast, most of us have a pretty good idea of how these things are supposed to work. A knight receives a quest to complete to prove his honor, usually involving a creature and/or magic spells and/or a damsel in distress, and returns to Camelot a hero, granted land or a marriage or a new horse (all these things being more or less equal in value) by the king. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the chivalric romance penned in the 14th century by an unknown author, is no different, containing as it does the trappings of what was described above: a knight, a test, temptations, honor proven or not. The Green Knight, the new film adapted and directed by David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete's Dragon), takes all of these familiar elements and turns them on their head.
In the beginning, the film sticks pretty close to the source material: It's Christmas Day in Camelot, and King Arthur (Sean Harris) is hosting a feast in his hall for the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur's nephew Gawain (Dev Patel, and not yet a knight in this version), has yet to find a way to prove himself worthy to his king, until an unexpected guest comes calling. In trots the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), an enormous axe-bearing warrior who appears to be fashioned out of tree bark and plants, who presents to the king a challenge: a chivalric game, in the spirit of the season, in which any knight in the room is invited to strike him a blow, which will be returned in kind one year hence.
Arthur, aged as he is, is unable to accomplish anything resembling fighting, and so Gawain volunteers, beheading the Green Knight with one blow. To the shock of all present, the Knight picks up his head, reiterates the conditions of the game, and tells Gawain to meet him in a year at the Green Chapel, where he will return the blow Gawain gave him. It's up to Gawain, then, to hold up his end of the bargain, setting off the following December to find this knight in his chapel and receive the deadly blow—one that, as he is not made of magical plants, Gawain is unlikely to survive.
And that's the chivalric test: Is Gawain brave enough—chivalrous enough—to ride to what is likely to be his death just because he made a promise to do it? Not to mention dealing with all the deathly visions, ghosts, giants, and thieves he encounters along the way. Where the poem glosses over most of the journeying bits in favor of the tricky test bits, Lowery's version of the story (typical in all of his movies) luxuriates in the windswept fields, the babbling streams, the misty forests so choked with greenery they seem untouched by human industry. In this story, as it likely was during the medieval age, nature is vast and full of unknown terrors and wonders, the old world of the woods that operates according to its own rules. "That is the world," one character says, "and the world is fit for all manner of mysteries." There is a sense of vitality barely contained, of another deeper, darker realm just beyond the reach of sight, fluttering at the corner of your eye.
The Green Knight isn't an action fantasy, or even a fantasy in the way we've become accustomed to it: there are no dragons (though there is a whale fossil), no sparkly magic spells (though there is at least one sinister incantation and a companionable fox), no evil magicians (though the Green Knight is very scary), no athletic sex scenes (though the whole movie is very sexy). The Gawain Patel plays feels young, yet burdened with a sense of desperation that eats at him as soon as he leaves any sign of civilization. His co-star Alicia Vikander shows her range with a surprise dual role whose explanations are kept in the dark, stealing scenes during the film's most surreal section.
I will say now, though I won't spoil why, that the ending doesn't go where those familiar with the poem will expect. Rather than a tale of the rewards of a chivalric life, it turns its attention towards the weight of living under the expectations of kings, of being honorable even when you stop recognizing what honor even is, of how easy it is to be confused in the face of desire and the hollow promises of comfort and ease. It boldly reimagines one of the most famous Arthurian tales, and in doing so feels like a relic from an ancient era when the barrier was thin between the world of men and the world of magic, mystery, and everything green.