We all know of the legend of King Arthur and his knights. It is impossible to exist in western, English-speaking culture without knowing it; it has shaped too many stories. A24’s new film “The Green Knight” relies heavily on our universal cultural knowledge of the Arthurian mythos—and uses it to mess with our expectations.
Arts & Entertainment Editor
“The Green Knight” is based on a 14th-century medieval poem in which Gawain, a knight of the round table, accepts a challenge and plays a dangerous game on Christmas Day with a green knight. He lops off the green knight’s head but is horrified to discover that the knight survives and demands the right to an equal wound in a year and a day. Bound by honor, Gawain must travel to the Green Chapel to face the return blow. He faces many tests of his moral fortitude until he comes to a castle housing Lord and Lady Bertilak. There, his chivalry is tested, but Gawain comes through and is rewarded with an enchanted green girdle that shall protect him from the giant’s axe. Ultimately, the green knight reveals all to have been a trick arranged by King Arthur’s villainous sister and parts on good terms with Gawain. He lets him go free, head attached, and Gawain becomes one of the greatest of knights.
The poem is not overly complex, and it is tightly written. The movie is the exact opposite.
The film “The Green Knight” is a dizzying, anachronistic look at this classic tale that uses our familiarity with this world to throw us off balance. It is packed with confusing imagery and symbols that are rarely explained, scenes that linger too long or end too quick, and nameless, yet hauntingly familiar characters. (In particular, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are only ever identified as The King and The Queen.) It is not a film interested in answers, only questions.
The visuals are stunning—gorgeous, lingering scenes of verdant forests and strange architecture, and the actors all perform their roles perfectly (Dev Patel is a standout in the underwritten role of Gawain) but the film meanders through plot points and themes seemingly at random. It twists and distorts the classical rules of chivalric romances but refuses to dip deeper into them. It has something to say but does not understand how best to say it.
This disconnection and disorienting effect, however, may be the point. As Gawain struggles through various mishaps and trials, we feel his confusion, his anger, his fear. For the first two thirds of the film, the audience feels lost and out of place, but once we come to the climax everything resolves into a terrifying clarity, as Gawain meets his enemy in a standout scene where Patel can showcase his acting in full force. In the final moment, we understand Gawain, and the film is worth seeing for the climax alone.
Ultimately I find “The Green Knight” to be an inconsistent, wavering film with a solid climax and magnificent visuals. I give it a three out of five stars. Though I have my quibbles with it, it is a beautiful film that is sure to spark discussion after viewing. It is most certainly worth a watch.