David Lowery’s The Green Knight is an epic, sprawling, and cinematically inspiring adaptation of the 14th-century chivalric romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is the fifth time the tale has been adapted for the screen and it is, perhaps, the most accurate interpretation we will ever have of Gawain’s quest. Lowery has created a wholly unsettling vision that will keep audiences questioning the legitimacy of what they saw, long after they have left the cinema.
The Green Knight Review: Heavy is the Head(less) That Wears the Crown
The Green Knight is a sumptuous, visually stimulating feast for the eyes. The landscapes are evocative and thought-provoking, leaning heavily into symbolism and color theory to convey what is not spoken in the film. Vast periods of time — including the most pivotal points of the film — are devoid of dialogue, utilizing the soul-stirring orchestration of Daniel Hart and the inspired sound mixing that creates auditory euphoria.
Lowery’s script loosely follows the structure of the source material. As the aged King Arthur (Sean Harris) gathers his Knights of the Round Table, with his nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) at his side, to celebrate Christmas morning, the mysterious Green Knight arrives with the challenge of a Christmas Game. Gawain is not yet a knight, but he quickly agrees to the challenge, without heeding caution to the rules of the game. Whatever is done to the Green Knight will be returned in a year’s time — essentially an eye-for-an-eye.
What Gawain does not know is that his mother is behind the Green Knight’s unexpected arrival. She and her witchy sisters have summoned the earth-born creature to test her son’s valor, presumably thinking that the Green Knight’s challenge will change his drinking and carousing ways. Rather than showing mercy to the Green Knight, Gawain cleeves his head from his shoulders and effectively seals his own fate. Rather than spending the year trying to become a chivalrous and valiant knight, Gawain continues wasting his youth in taverns and brothels.
Dev Patel is magnificent in the role of Gawain. Lowery’s script relies heavily on limited dialogue and solitary scenes, allowing Patel to give physical, introspective performances as he journeys across nature’s green chapel and the wastelands of human folly.
Gawain is tested throughout his journey, as all true knights are, but Gawain fails, time and time again. When he is given guidance, his gratitude is shown through a cockily offered “thanks” that results in him nearly dying. When he is given rest and shelter by the jovial lord (Joel Edgerton), he falls prey to the temptation of his wife, who appears to him as the Lady that his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) from the brothel wished for him to make her. The only test that he truly passed was retrieving the head of Winifred (Erin Kellyman) from the lake and returning it to her body. Yet, even then she reminded him that he was not acting as a knight should.
In short, Gawain is the summation of proud men who wastes the undeserved glory given to them by the women in their lives. His mother tried to give him a chance to become a hero, Essel extended grace when she should’ve given up, and in the end, he still couldn’t get it up to be a better man. A fact that he is faced with in his final moments.
As a longtime student of Arthurian lore, I have very little to critique about how Lowery chose to adapt the tale. In fact, my immediate thought upon exiting the theater was that Lowery should begin adapting the next great chivalric tale, posthaste. When crafting the film, it is clear that he wanted to summon forth the aesthetics of the larger Arthurian narrative, without sacrificing the focus on Gawain’s ill-fated story.
The Green Knight’s only weakness is that it expects far too much from its audience. The storytelling is loose, leaning into repetitive visuals that convey the circular nature of folkloric tales and the unreliable narrators who pass them down, but it also leaves room for audiences to get lost in the undercurrent of what is real and what might be a bad mushroom trip. And perhaps there is beauty in a film so ambiguous that each of us takes something different from our individual quest into it.
Epic poems, chivalric romances, and the folklore that is passed down through the centuries are always left up to the interpretation of the reader. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most straightforward Arthurian tales, yet Lowery chose to shroud it in ambiguity and covert symbolism. As more audiences begin to process The Green Knight, perhaps then we will see which narrative was the most easily gleaned.
A24's The Green Knight will premiere in theaters on Friday, July 30.