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In recent years, medieval epics have largely been relegated to television, replacing the role film once had in telling these grandiose tales. With larger budgets, mostly following the success of Game of Thrones, studios have wanted to take advantage of the ability to create more expansive character arcs and narratives for these period pieces set in the Middle Ages. Though we can’t blame them, it’s nice when a fabled story – especially one that’s been told before, let alone on film – such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is given the big screen treatment.
In David Lowery’s version of the 14th century anonymous tale, simply titled The Green Knight, Dev Patel plays Gawain, a young, drunken knight who’s given the chance on Christmas Day to sit beside his uncle, King Arthur (Sean Harris). Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), a mystic of some sort, says an incantation and suddenly the Green Knight appears at Camelot, issuing a mysterious challenge to Arthur’s men. He says that if one of the knights is able to land a blow on his body, he will earn the right to his own green ax – but will also have the blow returned one year from now.
Gawain, urgently wanting to prove himself, although it’s unclear exactly why, agrees to the challenge when no one else will. But as he goes to fight the Green Knight, the arboreal-looking creature bows down, giving his neck to his eager opponent. Gawain chops his head off, but then the Knight picks up his head and walks away.
A year passes quickly and now Gawain must set off to locate the Green Knight to fulfill his part in the “game.” Along the way, he encounters many obstacles and strange individuals that will either help or hurt him on his quest to find and thus fend off his mysterious opponent.
Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, The Old Man & the Gun) writes, directs, and edits the film, establishing himself an auteur with his creatively controlled and unified vision, even when certain lofty and cryptic ideas don’t always work. However, the motion and life behind the camera, with help from DP Andrew Droz Palermo, keep things interesting even during the slower moments – of which there are several – ensuring we can always feel the director’s touch.
Visually, he gives us something special, not just relying on the beautiful Irish landscapes, crafting a dreamlike pretense with exaggerated proportions and almost illogical scenarios. While Gawain has two or three quick daydreams – and one elongated one – there’s a dissociative lack of control to go along with the very personal perspective of our “hero’s” journey.
Although, with Gawain not meeting his first setback until 45 minutes in, the story gets caught up in the marrow of its own aesthetic, relying too much on visual storytelling instead of revealing almost any information verbally. Some viewers will understandably feel frustrated trying to figure out what’s going on, especially if unfamiliar with the source material. But if you can go with what you know and let the plot come to you on its own terms, you’ll see the journey is very much intentional, even if too purely symbolic or inferential at times.
Going along with the dreamlike approach, Lowery always keeps us two steps behind on the journey, never lost but always struggling to catch up. However, it’s towards the end of the second act when Gawain meets an ambiguous couple, known only as the Lord (Joel Edgerton) and the Lady (Alicia Vikander), where many of us will become completely lost for a bit.
Lowery adds several story hubs of his own, such as a group of bandits and a surreal sequence involving the spirit of a beheaded St. Winifred. Yet despite these inclusions, the director never quite has enough fun with his premise. Foregoing the fable elements of the original poem, he tries to give it a rational conclusion, which in turn makes it less rational since he doesn’t change any of the context or themes that would have supported it.
The title of the film refers not only to the story’s antagonist, but also to Gawain himself. A flat, almost utilitarian character who doesn’t have anyone around him to justify his lack of depth, the young, unappreciative protagonist isn’t established enough for us to care about him prior to his journey, with only self-serving events transpiring once he’s on his way. Yet rather than leaning into this idea of a non-virtuous protagonist, Lowery tries to end his film on a high note to give Gawain redemption.
However, that’s not the point of the story he’s constructed, with supposed themes about the authenticity of honor and the level to which it’s true if you have knowledge that it’s undeserved. In other words, the honor that others give to you is only a reinforcement of what honor is already there. It’s an idea that many, like myself, will really grab hold of, but one that will be given no payoff, as its “fulfillment” is thrown under the bus with a narrative crutch that is an elongated flash-forward dream sequence and nothing else.
Gawain and the Green Knight, as it’s originally told, is a lesson on how the human flaws of even the most virtuous man don’t detract from his heroism. While the original poem found humanity within the heroic nature of its protagonist, this modern retelling opts to find heroism amidst its posturing, false hero. Since we see very little of his interactions with others, the experiences that humanize him are almost entirely buried within his intrinsic flaws and vices rather than anything that would garner empathy.
And thus the result must be that of failure and tragedy – as we see in the false epilogue at the end – since our hero hasn’t earned anything else.
Not necessarily a great adaptation of the original 14th century poem, The Green Knight is still an interesting interpretation if you’re familiar with the source material. However, those new to the subject will find it more head-scratching than enthralling due to its lack of establishment of context or explanation for these elaborate twists, even in the very end. Thankfully Lowery, taking cues from the likes of both Spike Jonez and Peter Jackson, infuses his cerebral tale with a satisfying mood board aesthetic and world building that results in a truly cinematic vision that’s worth the effort.