Review: ‘The Green Knight’ (great expectations)

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Six o’clock on a Christmas morning, Gawain (Dev Patel) awakens in a house of ill repute as the city smolders outside under a blanket of snow. Watched over by Essel (Alicia Vikander) while lost in his cups, he pays for her company but not her trade. Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury) disapproves of her son’s wanton behavior — and the misplacement of his boots — but encourages him still to attend the kingdom’s celebratory gathering in her stead. Old King Arthur (Sean Harris) invites young Gawain to sit at his side in his mother’s absence, asking the young man for a story of his life to know him better; when he confesses he has none to tell, the haggard Queen (Kate Dickie) corrects him: “None yet.” When Arthur issues the same request to the rest of his men, an otherworldly Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) appears at the chamber doors to issue a challenge to the merrymakers, one with potentially dire consequences. What none suspect is the meddling hand of Gawain’s mother… and the lengths she’ll go to ensure her son’s reluctant success.

Written and directed by David Lowery, this adaptation has its influences in everything from the original surviving text to elements of Sean Connery’s Sword of the Valiant and John Boorman’s Excalibur. The anonymously written “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a tale of chivalry and loyalty, but in Lowery’s hands, the shortening of the title and lack of knighthood for the main character is clear: Gawain lacks both opportunity and ambition, so why bother? In a time when all foes have been defeated, Gawain isn’t eager to take on the responsibilities of a knight, or in modern terms, he suffers from Failure to Launch (see Matthew McConaughey for details). This distinctive slant from the original tale paints the retelling in a different light, a young man manipulated into responsibility to prove his honor. Seemingly having no choice, will he step up to survive his trials, essentially falling forever into the life trap his mother has set for him?

Some viewers may well gnaw their arms off rather than watch a witless screw-up kicked out of his medieval nest, flapping his arms foolishly in a wasted effort to see if he’ll fly. For those who delight in the manipulations of court politics, the stories of Arthur and his “brave knights,” and the scourge of societal roles pushed upon those with no understanding of them, this is the deep-cut spooky Arthurian art house film they only dreamed might one day exist. Stylized with an eye toward smart budgeting and using old-school filmmaking tricks to echo its inspirations, The Green Knight is unapologetic in pushing its protagonist to the breaking point, yet also proving not only his worth but his ability to truly take power for himself.

A key to understanding who wants what in the film is in understanding the lineage; while this is a minor spoiler overall, missing it may cause oceans of confusion about why the film unfolds as it does and how it is ultimately resolved. Lowery trusts his viewers are familiar with these classic literary characters and wastes little time reintroducing them. Emmet O’Brien’s credited “Magician,” for example, is Merlin himself yet never named directly; his shorthand with Arthur is so ingrained he can advise the monarch with a mere nod to a glance askew. Likewise, Gawain’s mother is the sorceress Morgan le Fay; she doesn’t want her layabout son to miss a golden opportunity to impress his heir-less uncle (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).

However, Morgan’s well-founded mistrust of Gawain to do as he’s told and accept what he is given is palpable, so she further stacks the deck in his favor. The wildcard, however, is Gawain being his mother’s son, and in the most Merlin of ways, has “something of the sight.” Armed with this knowledge, chapters like “An Interlude” and a developing notice of things not of the natural world shows Gawain coming into his own… whether he likes it or not. The protagonist of the original story was essentially a failure, meant as an allegory that even the best of Arthur’s knights was imperfect and still human — their Lord Christ being an unattainable goal — while Lowery’s Gawain is given the opportunity to truly best his literary counterpart.

Sweeping landscapes, dark apparitions, and dire temptations are all part Lowery’s tale, one he reportedly spent six months in COVID lock-down re-editing into the best version of the film he could make. It takes its time in the most A24 of ways, scratching away at the impatience of those who can’t sit still. As has been written elsewhere, this “isn’t a fantasy action-adventure,” but the trial of a would-be knight, calling into question personal philosophy and moral character. For viewers who think they have what it takes, ask them again after the credits roll.

The Green Knight is rated R for violence, some sexuality, graphic nudity, and remember: it’s only a game.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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