Film Review: ‘The Green Knight’ Journeys Down the Tangled Road to Greatness6 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
A fantasy retelling of the medieval story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson
Runtime: 130 minutes
A24 Films looks to continue its winning streak of critically-acclaimed, arthouse darlings with The Green Knight. However, both for better and for worse, the film also stands as one of the most polarising from the studio’s recent slate — perhaps even more so than 2019’s experimental horror film The Lighthouse. The Green Knight is emblematic of everything fans love from A24, and everything everyone else is critical of.
Having a medieval fantasy epic featuring next to no large-scale battles as a marquee release is almost par for the course for A24, where a key ingredient for their success has been their willingness to tackle genres approaches otherwise shunned by Hollywood. The studio’s trademark of character-driven stories told through brilliant performances and exceptional cinematography remains deftly felt here with Dev Patel at his career-best in the lead.
On the flip side, The Green Knight is also particularly susceptible to A24 Films’ long-standing criticism of being more devoted to style than substance. Just about every scene is a visual feast but how they connect and pace along is, at its worst, perplexingly incoherent. It’s not the same frustration that can arise with experimental films either. The film occupies a strange middle ground where it is, on one hand, decidedly straightforward, but on the other, chooses to dizzy down the narrow path without enough substantial reason to aid its storytelling.
From the get-go, The Green Knight faces the task of being based on a lesser-known medieval legend. During a Christmas feast, a giant tree-like knight barges into King Arthur’s court and lays down a challenge: any knight able to strike him will win his axe, but the knight will have to meet him one year later at the Green Chapel to receive an equal blow from him.
Eager to prove himself, Gawain (Dev Patel), a nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), answers the call and decapitates the Green Knight but, to his horror, sees his opponent ride off with his severed head. One year on, Gawain now heads north, navigating through the wilderness in search of the Green Chapel and the fate that awaits him.
What is most engaging about The Green Knight is its subversions of tropes. The film world strips away the grandeur of Arthurian legends — of knights in shining armour, dragons and epic quests — to reveal a far crueller, more realistic landscape.
Contrary to its source material, the film’s Gawain is not a knight — quite the opposite. He spends nights at brothels, skips out on mass, and gets into fistfights on a whim. Still, Gawain endeavours to be great and honourable, believing that the key lies with a knighthood. The film essentially pushes the medieval stories and all its high-flung ideas of morality through the wringer of human weakness. Along the way to the Green Chapel, Gawain faces a string of obstacles that, unbeknownst to him, are disguised as trials to test his moral worth as a knight. He soon learns that it is one thing to be, and another thing to become.
Patel’s performance in the lead cannot be praised enough. Even as he continues to fail forwards in his quest, Patel’s Gawain remains rootable for the vulnerability he brings to the role; a relatable protagonist who grows ever-more absorbing to follow along especially with the emotional nuances he brings while limping through each subsequent challenge.
A memorable moment arises as Gawain begins his journey, trodding through the gates of Camelot with children cheering him on vying for his attention. However, he remains cold, only acknowledging their presence once the group turns back home, switching his stoic expressions into palpable fear in a snap.
The scene is only a drop in the ocean in terms of the film’s tremendous performances, with Sean Harris’ King Arthur being perhaps the most affectionate royalty in recent film memory. The Green Knight and its tale would have been elevated even higher if it allowed its cast — and not just its visuals — to take the lead.
Undoubtedly, the film is top of the class when it comes to cinematography and set design. The use of colours, in particular, makes it a crime to catch The Green Knight anywhere else but the cinemas. Expect film stills to populate film accounts on Instagram for the foreseeable future.
Yet, the film’s faults lie — perhaps solely to this writer — exactly with how it feels like it is far more interested in looking like it is sharable on Instagram than it is with storytelling. The visuals present an air of lofty intricacy that the tale, even with its twists and subversions, cannot support.
It’s a cynicism that arises with how, so often, one dazzling visual is stitched with another without any coherent reason other than to be aesthetic. At worst, it feels like the film’s sequencing is done by an AI programmed to dazzle. Similarly, while the film’s soundtrack is spellbinding (and perfect for the Christmas season), the use of music feels a little too on cue; expect chanting choirs whenever anything remotely otherworldly happens. It’s a film that feels far too clean, too polished and too safe despite all its highly imaginative sets and costumes — safe because the visuals only muffle the terrifying yet essential existential questions the film asks of its audience.
Even without the context of its source material, and partially thanks to Patel’s fantastic performance, it can become rather clear early on what the film is vying for. The Green Knight isn’t, by any means, shallow. It just consistently manoeuvres like there’s far more up its sleeve — which eventually is somewhat the case! But even then, the film cannot escape the thought that there must have been a far clearer, more focused route to the end than it took, especially when the key takeaways remain similar to the brief 14th-century poem the story derived from.
Make no mistake, The Green Knight packs a terrific tale that presents questions and themes well worth pondering: goodness versus greatness, the fear of death, what it means to be mortal. Aesthetic and performance-wise, the film is also a clear home run. Yet, somehow, these two elements constantly find themselves at odds with each other.
The Green Knight feels like a fresh steak that could have been otherwise better enjoyed without the overdose of expensive sauces. It’s still a fantastic meal — but was it really necessary to wash the steak with water straight from the Swiss Alps?
The Green Knight is now screening in theatres islandwide.