Based on the Arthurian legend, THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021) is a film adaptation of the medieval poem, “Sir Gawain.” I found it beautiful and stirring and loved it, though thematically it’s muddled, making me appreciate the journey more than the destination. This is the kind of movie where it might be fun to go into it knowing nothing more than it’s about Gawain and set in the King Arthur legend, so you might skip this review if you haven’t seen it. Still with me? Here goes:
It’s Christmas Day, and Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew (he’s the son of Morgana the witch) awakes in a brothel. Growing up in Camelot, he lives around the great knights of the Round Table but missed all the action, and as a result he lives a life of relative decadence in a stark Camelot that is at its peak of glory but tired and already waning. Enter the Green Knight, the product of his mother’s magic, who offers a Christmas game to test the virtue of Arthur’s knights: Any knight is welcome to give him a blow if in one year’s time the monstrous knight may return it. Stirred by his uncle’s attention, Gawain plays the game, but now in a year he must journey to face the Green Knight. Along the way, he will be tested to find out his true character in an examination of the value of character and what it means, particularly in relation to one’s worth as a human being–not only in the face of adversity but also death.
The film making here is just art throughout, from the fine acting to the sublime world building and cinematography to the stirring music to the rich sound quality to the overall brooding atmosphere. I absolutely loved everything about the film’s presentation and the superior craft behind it. That’s 80% of my review. It’s just a beautiful film that offers a dreamlike experience akin to the 1981 film EXCALIBUR, though with far less sex and violence. I watched the movie at home, all the while wishing I’d seen it in a theater.
Where the film was uneven for me as a viewer, however, was in story, mostly in the character of Gawain himself. In the medieval poem, the story works because he’s already a knight of almost perfect virtue, who must be tested and uphold his perfect virtue right up to the final test. In the film, he starts as a lazy, fun-loving rich kid, so the tests don’t quite work, of they’d work better if he failed them until finally discovering his moral courage. If he’d given in to his familiar desires at each test only to get a comeuppance or have his gains stripped away to show they don’t add up to anything lasting, it might have worked better for me as a morality tale. Then Gawain’s journey of self-discovery would have more actual discovering.
Watching THE GREEN KNIGHT, I was struck by the similarity with Aronofsky’s MOTHER!, which is similarly visually rich and puzzling but in contrast utterly dominates its theme. For me, MOTHER! was ingenious in its retelling of the Bible as allegory that included Earth as the protagonist. By the end, the theme emerges to virtually burst in the viewer’s mind like an epiphany, magnifying one’s appreciation. THE GREEN KNIGHT is a bit muddier. There’s something there, though its parts are far more open to interpretation. Aronofsky seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say when he made MOTHER!, I’m not sure David Lowery was as focused with THE GREEN KNIGHT.
Overall, I found the film affecting and quite an experience and recommend it. It casts a spell on you, even if the incantation is a bit diffused.