The Green Knight is at its best when it’s at its weirdest. A24, with its reputation for visual sumptuousness and bold, unsettling storytelling, seems a perfect fit for an adaptation of the 14th-century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an Arthurian tale of magic, violence, and honor whose strangeness continues to fascinate modern readers. The film excels when it leans into this fascinating strangeness, showing us fantastical, horrific sights and teasing us with chronological fake-outs in its plot. Those looking for a film that does full justice to the original tale, however, may be disappointed by The Green Knight’s lapse into a familiar story of a womanizing ne’er-do-well taught the true value of honor through his trials.
This backslide into cliché seems especially surprising considering how self-conscious an adaptation this long-awaited film is. It begins with a narrator announcing the Arthurian context; the credits identify it as a retelling of the chivalric romance “by Anonymous”; title cards label different episodes of the story in medieval-style script; characters wander into “poetic” monologues. It’s clear that one of director David Lowery’s goals is to meditate on the nature of fable and myth. Characters, particularly Gawain himself, humorously react to the fairy-tale logic and the alien ethical codes of the source material. For instance, in one episode, when Gawain is poised to find the severed head of a ghostly maiden so she may rest in peace, he asks her what he may get in return for this good deed. She responds, affronted, “Why would you ever ask me that?”
Yet this consciousness of the source material oddly weighs down The Green Knight and prevents it from embracing what makes the Arthurian legend such an enduring favorite. The major theme of vulnerability to the power of nature, personified in the frightening and enigmatic Green Knight, is overexplained by the aforementioned quasi-poetic monologues, which slow the film’s pacing to a halt. The elderly, ailing King Arthur (Sean Harris) has this unfortunate effect whenever he appears onscreen.
The overweighted moral also contributes to the film’s greatest defect: the characterization of Gawain as a rich-boy reprobate in need of reform. In the original romance, Gawain is renowned for his chivalric purity, the story showing how even this most admirable of knights is weakened by lust and fear. The Green Knight’s Gawain is a brothel-frequenting drunk, a bad boy who must be taught to honor his responsibilities. The film thus reproduces several thematic clichés, particularly in its tendency to render female characters as witches, wenches, or victims, all of whom are allied with the wild mystery of Mother Nature. In one of the most visually stunning scenes, even the group of giants Gawain encounters are all apparently naked females, one of whom is breastfeeding.
In transforming this unique and otherworldly story into a familiar one, The Green Knight also gives short shrift to the homoeroticism of the original tale, which focuses on Gawain’s participation in a titillating game of exchange with the lord of a castle. At the end of each day, Gawain and the lord must give each other what they’ve “gained.” While the lord is out hunting, Gawain conflictingly dodges the advances of the lady of the castle and is thus obliged to give the lord all the kisses the lady has given Gawain. The Green Knight allows for a single, obscured kiss on the cheek between Gawain and the lord, disappointingly rendering this 2021 adaptation more heteronormative than its medieval inspiration.
Yet the film’s second act saves it, when the story revels a little in the nonnormative, in the unexplained. This act is more episodic, depicting Gawain’s encounters with the fantastic—giants, thieves, ghosts, and scarily erotic (or erotically scary) games. This is where the magnetic leading man, Dev Patel, shines. Patel, with his long, noble features and his talent for expressive vulnerability, does his best work when he is allowed to live out Gawain’s moments of terror, confusion, and cowardice. This role also marks Patel’s second turn as an iconic British hero, after his stint as the titular character in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019). Considering the usual overwhelming whiteness of British literary adaptations, Patel’s establishment as a go-to male lead is a significant and welcome shift, which he amply earns in The Green Knight.
In all, The Green Knight offers some genuinely striking cinematography along with some interesting story work and a highly watchable leading man. Many of the visuals are by now standard A24 motifs—sunbursts, headless bodies, the camera turning upside down on a long shot—but they are no less beautiful for being signature. There is much worth seeing in The Green Knight. If only it were weirder. v