Everyone has an idea in their head of what a film based on Arthurian legend looks like. They’re probably imagining lots of men giving bold speeches with a presentational acting style and a more than usually over-pronounced RP accent, set against a backdrop of medieval castles, Christian imagery around every corner. Forget all that. The genius of The Green Knight is in how thoroughly director David Lowery rejects what we think we know about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, creating a film that is visually and tonally completely different from anything we’ve seen before.
Gawain (Dev Patel) is the young reprobate nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris.) He wants to be a knight, but his life is a book of empty pages. When he stands among all the legends of his uncle’s court, he is acutely aware that he’s done nothing to inspire poets to pass down stories of his adventures down the ages, and no one will sing songs of him after he is dead. But he gets his chance at immortality at Christmas, when the Green Knight, a towering figure who seems almost to have sprouted from the earth as a fully formed tree trunk, turns up at King Arthur’s court desirous of a game. The rules are simple: any man who lands one blow on him will win his axe, a formidable weapon that has seen many battles, on the condition that in one year, the man will seek out the Green Knight and allow him to repay the blow in kind. Gawain volunteers. And let the games begin.
The Green Knight is immediately striking for its production design and cinematography. So many Arthurian films give their setting a distinctly medieval appearance, even though the stories are based in a time much further past. Lowery uses earth tones and large set pieces hewn from rock in a way that taps into something ancient, primal even. There are Christian elements (the king and queen, especially, evoke early paintings of holy figures, their crowns creating a golden halo around them), but they are intriguingly intermingled with pagan Celtic mythology.
As much as Gawain and the stories of King Arthur’s court in general pay lip service to Christian virtues of honor and purity, The Green Knight takes place in a world that is still very much at a crossroads between the Judeo-Christian values that would dominate the medieval era, and everything that came before. More than any other King Arthur film, it uses the mystical setting of ancient Britain to its full advantage.
The vistas are remote and forbidding, almost alien. When Gawain walks across an isolated hillside, it feels as though he is in a land where we can easily imagine that giants still roam and the very forests and lakes are imbued with ancient magic that has no name. Lowery uses this opportunity to embrace an abstract, heavily allegorical narrative style, a fever dream that ensnares and enchants. It’s the sort of sensory feast that will likely reward the repeat viewer and make The Green Knight a ripe subject of critical analysis for years to come. You know when you watch a movie and immediately you can tell that film students will be writing entire senior theses about it? That’s what this is like. Nothing is as it seems in The Green Knight: it’s just a game, as King Arthur tells Gawain early on. But what sort of game, and how does one begin to determine the rules?
There’s textual complexity at play here, with each individual vignette of Gawain’s journey adding more and more substance to the mix. But the real triumph of The Green Knight is its rich visual palette, with gorgeous yellows, browns, and greens enveloping the screen and building a sort of interconnectedness between the stories and the earth itself. David Lowery’s interpretation of the classical poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a mass of contradictions: modern and primeval, a simple parable pregnant with hidden meaning, literary but also profoundly cinematic. All this is to say that The Green Knight is, perhaps, one of the most intellectually satisfying theatrical experiences in recent years.