Whilst attending a Christmas feast in Camelot with his uncle King Arthur, Gawain (Dev Patel) accepts a challenge made by a Green Knight who enters Arthur’s court on horseback.
This challenge involves Gawain landing a blow on the Green Knight, so Arthur hands Gawain his sword Excalibur and he beheads the mysterious knight. But this does not kill the plant-like being, who rides off (holding his severed head in his hand) to await Gawain, who must travel to the knight’s Green Chapel the following Christmas and receive an equal blow in return…
One can appreciate colourblind casting, which increases opportunities for actors of colour, though as this film’s narrative doesn’t really embrace Dev Patel’s ethnicity or integrate it into the character, the casting decision probably leaves some viewers wondering how come King Arthur’s nephew happens to be played by an English-born son of Indian Hindus. That said, I think Patel is really good in this movie: he conveys a lot via his eyes and expressions, rather than dialogue.
Adapted from the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the film looks wonderful, with some impressive Irish landscapes and buildings. Director David (PETE’S DRAGON) Lowery, who was also the writer, purposefully goes out of his way to make the film enigmatic and dreamlike, though the finished production ends up being an interesting, unusual film, rather than a truly compelling one, I think.
Novel moments include Gawain’s encounter with a group of naked, hairless giants and the scene where he helps a murdered woman ghost (Erin Kellyman) find closure by recovering her skull from the pond outside her home. There’s also a friendly fox that eventually talks to Gawain.
At one point, when Gawain is left tied-up in a forest, the camera does a 360-degree pan, ending with a shot of Gawain’s withered corpse, as if to say that one way this story could end is with the protagonist failing to free himself and dying amongst the trees. The camera then does another 360-degree pan and ends with a shot of the still-alive Gawain, who, this time, manages to free himself from his bonds. I don’t know why, but this moment really sticks in my memory.
The Green Knight himself looks impressive, with a living wooden visage resembling the design of a ‘Green Man’ foliate head carving. Played by Ralph Ineson wearing prosthetics designed by Barry Gower, the Green Knight in this film is a big improvement on the same mythical character, played by Sean Connery, in SWORD OF THE VALIANT: THE LEGEND OF SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (1984).
The part that I think is really effective comes near the very end of the movie, where it seems Gawain flees the Green Knight, goes back to Camelot, is knighted and eventually becomes king. He has a son by commoner Essel (Alicia Vikander) but he abandons her and takes the child, who grows up and dies of wounds on a battlefield. Gawain marries a noblewoman, has a child by his wife and, many years later, we see him become an unpopular king. After his castle comes under siege and his family abandons him, Gawain removes a magic green girdle he has worn throughout these scenes and his head falls from his body, to the ground… and Gawain realises this compelling sequence has all been a vision: he is still kneeling on the ground in the Green Chapel, waiting for the Green Knight to strike his blow. This whole sequence is wordless and really well done.
With a purposefully ambiguous fate for the hero, THE GREEN KNIGHT perhaps tries too hard to be a non-heroic yarn, with a leisurely pace, Arthur portrayed as a quite sickly man (played well by Sean Harris) and Gawain shown to be a pretty reactive protagonist – but the film boasts some impressive visuals, a striking score and undeniably has its own special atmosphere.
A behind the scenes shot…