David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) deviates significantly from the medieval romance it is based upon. Along with the lush cinematography, Dev Patel as Sir Gawain delivers a compelling performance. The film is deliberately slow, meditative, and ambiguous, raising important questions about chivalry and toxic masculinity that it doesn’t quite answer.
In this retelling, Gawain spends most of his time drinking and reveling in debauchery. An aging King Arthur invites him to his side at the Christmas feast and when Queen Guinevere asks him to share a tale, he claims to have none. As if on cue, the mysterious Green Knight arrives and issues a challenge that Gawain solely rises to meet. He wields Arthur’s sword Excalibur and slices off the Knight’s head in front of everyone. The Green Knight picks up his head that reminds Gawain of his promise: he must face the attacker a year later at the Green Chapel and receive a similar blow in turn.
Much of the film focuses on Gawain’s journey to meet his “death”- a journey that repeatedly makes him question his knightly code, moral values, and masculinity. In flashbacks, we see his interactions with Essel whom he cannot make a “lady” because she is a commoner.
When a spirit asks him to retrieve her head from a spring, he immediately asks her what she would give him in exchange and is reprimanded for it. While staying at a castle near the Chapel, he must fight off the advances of the Lady of the house, even if his instincts prefer otherwise.
Throughout, Lowry’s revisions Gawain as a deeply confused and conflicted man, whose actions are not always honorable and can be hurtful to others. Far from being a paragon of knightly virtue, Patel’s portrayal of Gawain questions the ideals of honor, righteousness, and heroism and if they are even relevant at all, without providing any clear answers.
The breathtaking visuals, the haunting background score, and Patel’s impeccable acting carry the film forward, even if the lack of a cohesive plot and slow pacing might detract some viewers. While the source material has been endlessly analyzed for its metaphors and themes, Lowery’s adaptation with its attention to detail similarly tries to build its own myth and symbolism, leaving behind a great deal open to interpretation. At its heart, the Green Knight is magical, poetic, and strange but occasionally, a little muddled.
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