Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan
Sometimes, we need to escape from reality. An obvious thing to say perhaps, but movies (or at least the majority of) are supposed to help us do that. Fantasy is, arguably, one of the best genres of fiction to help us with said escapism, and the original story of The Green Knight is nothing but fantastical. Originally a 14th-century poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (author unknown), the story is something of an Arthurian legend, a spin-off tale from that of the famous king and his Knights of the Round Table (Gawain being one of those knights). Taking on a piece of classic medieval literature is bold at the best of times, but to adapt something that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways could be quite the challenge. Has editor/writer/director David Lowery met that challenge, or is it one sword that should have been left firmly in the stone?
Gawain (Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Harris) by way of Arthur’s sister, the witch Morgan le Fay (Choudhury). Upon invitation by Arthur, who wishes to get to know his nephew, Gawain joins the king and his knights at Camelot on Christmas Day. During the course of “making merry”, the Green Knight (Ineson) appears at the castle. He offers a challenge: any knight who can land a blow on him will win the Green Knight’s axe. However, as penance, the dealer of the blow must receive an equal blow one year hence. Gawain takes up the challenge, taking Arthur’s sword to deal the blow, which proves to be one that is fatal to a human. As per the agreement, Gawain must face the same blow the following Christmas. Over the next year, he sets about proving himself to be an upright wannabe knight, growing his reputation before fulfilling the promise and encountering many people and strange occurrences along the way.
Lowery’s adaptation has been quite loyal to the text (while toning down the middle English language, thankfully), which is a pleasant surprise. Rather than go overboard with dissecting a ton of meaning or introducing a horde of symbolism, he keeps it simple story-wise. Having said that, it wouldn’t have hurt Lowery to stray a little, as the pacing of the plot peaks and troughs, leaving some areas to be slightly dull in comparison to others. At times it has a Guillermo del Toro/Pan’s Labyrinth air about it, other times the almost whimsical fantastical elements are reminiscent of stories such as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (also a 2001 BBC television adaptation) or Giambattista Basile’s fairytales (as seen in Matteo Garrone’s 2015 film Tale of Tales). Most of the time though, it falls a little flat off the mark until we are drawn back in by a talking fox or a vision of the Green Knight himself.
Where Lowery backs off from said meaning and symbolism, he instead utilises his crew, particularly cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, composer Daniel Hart, production designer Jade Healy and costume designer Malgosia Turzanska, to speak for the themes of the story. The cinematography, while showing off the beauty of the film’s outdoor locations, isn’t the most original, with particular shots and angles being familiar tropes of the majority of A24 productions. The same can be said of the music – the disjointed breaks and Bernard Herrmann-esque strings quickly get tiresome, but on the occasion that composer Hart introduces a more tone-matching tune or song, it begins to feel like coming down off a hangover and evens out the action. The production and costume designs compliment each other well, with the obvious use of green used to such an extent that we won’t forget the colour of the backbone of the story. It does bring a clear understanding of themes revolving around humans vs. nature though, of people doing as they please, even while knowing the consequences of their actions if not completely understanding them, and nature fighting back.
I am yet to see Patel find himself out of place in any role he commits to. While Gawain may not be a strongly written character, Patel gives him presence onscreen and a nuance that a lesser actor might have missed completely. Without this, he would have faded away behind weaker characters. A similar thing could be said of Vikander, as she portrays both a lover of Gawain’s, Essel, and an aristocratic lady who is supposed to resemble Essel. She depicts each character precisely enough to see differences and similarities, but it tends to be during some of the lady’s scenes that the pace slows somewhat. While the majority of the film belongs to Patel and Vikander, Edgerton provides some good support as the lord married to Vikander’s lady, engaging some plot points that help to push the story onward as well as a solid supporting performance. Ineson’s Green Knight, while not often seen, really enhances that fantasy element, which is often needed. Just his voice alone sets a new and fresh tone when onscreen. Harris and Dickie as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere mainly serve as exposition and plot-pushers, but they also provide a reminder of the fantastical.
There’s nothing hugely mesmerising about The Green Knight, and if it’s just a basic fantasy adventure you’re after, you can stick this on of a Sunday afternoon. Lowery plays much of it safe, which half of my mind wants to tell me is a good thing, but the other half wants more. If other Arthurian legends, particularly those about the king himself, can be so easily moulded into something fresh and, occasionally, modern, there’s no reason something similar couldn’t have been produced with this. It could be a “don’t fix what ain’t broke” kind of situation, but it’s a risk Lowery could have taken. As the mind behind 2017’s A Ghost Story, a great example of a film that’s unafraid to explore certain themes unabashedly, he has proven an ability for exploring a story’s themes further and deeper. Maybe it’s easier with an original story, but it still would have been good to see more of what Lowery gave to A Ghost Story within The Green Knight.