The Quest is one of the most well established story tropes in fiction, going all the way back to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, and even further. It is not the destination, but the journey that guides and dictates the story, as a wanderer learns of their destiny and their place in the world. All storytelling comes from it.
Tales of morality and mortality have fascinated us since ink was first put to paper. The Arthurian legends, especially, have held audiences’ imagination for so many years; J. R. R. Tolkien directly cites “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” as a major influence on his works.
This story has been tackled before; cable perennial The Sword of the Valiant, with Sean Connery as the Green Knight, was on constant repeat in the 1980s. But it hasn’t been done with the attention, the beauty, and the artistry that director David Lowery gives this adaptation.
When the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) appears on Christmas Day to challenge all other knights a game: any knight of worth can strike the Green Knight and if the knight succeeds in killing the Green Knight, they win the game. If the knight cannot kill the Green Knight in a single blow, the Green Knight will return the blow one year from the day the blow is struck.
Gawain beheads the Green Knight in a single strike, but the Green Knight picks up his head, leaves the throne room, with a single phrase floating on the wind… “One year hence.” The King sends Gawain to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, to meet his destiny.
David Lowery is not interested in breaking this down to basic levels. The Green Knight is both sumptuous and cold, full of unanswered questions, and the film refuses to hold the audience’s hand as it leads them into the deep, dark forest. Many will find the film distant, unresolvable, and deliberately hard to follow, which is fully the filmmaker’s intent.
Whether The Green Knight is making commentary on modern takes of masculinity and femininity in comparison to what those words mean in a chivalric context, or simply telling a story separated from those concepts in service to the larger myth, is for the audience to determine, but this is not a film afraid to challenge our preconceived notions of what chivalry really means. This is an A24 film through and through, which for many may mean that the film is all hype and no substance.
However, The Green Knight is filled with symbolism and meaning, even if audiences are not able to find such meaning apparent at first glance. The Green Knight requires audiences to work with it, and not everyone will be willing to put in the time.
But The Green Knight also explores themes of bravery, courage, and chivalry, especially juxtaposed to our modern understanding of those terms. Much of the film is separated into vignettes – Gawain is robbed, Gawain encounters a spirit of the woods, Gawain is delayed at a castle with a strange Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Vikander again).
Each vignette gives Gawain an opportunity to learn from the moment or to prove his mettle, and Gawain does not always live up to the expectations put upon him. Dev Patel is excellent as Gawain, a man full of passion and sensuality, but who is also lost in a much larger world, full of naiveté of youth.
The cinematography of The Green Knight is gorgeous; it is as if cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo simply set his camera into the primordial forests of old. The film is both lush and full of mystery, and evokes the works of Terry Gilliam and Ingmar Bergman. It almost smells of the earth.
The effects are at once beautiful and disturbing, whether it is of a magical fox guide or giants marching to the edge of the horizon. Lowery seems to have pulled imagery out of the very fabric of our dreams. Daniel Hart’s magnificent score sounds as if he is playing a bow to exposed nerves like a violin in an orchestra.
The Green Knight is not for casual audiences – I have always both admired how A24 markets movies like this, and felt that most of the audience that their marketing campaign attracts will not appreciate the movie they got as opposed to the movie that the trailers promised.
The Green Knight is a full meal, with lots to digest, and not all of it will go down easy. I found it truly wonderful, complex, and challenging. The Green Knight is steeped in legends and lore, not only of the historic kind, but of the cinematic kind too.
This film stands on the shoulders of giants, but also has sure footing of its own. I found it a difficult film to get out of my head, days later. The Green Knight is a feast for the eyes, the senses, the mind, and the soul.