‘The Green Knight’ (2021) Review: A Spectacular and Glorious Adaptation of a Hero’s Journey
This article contains spoilers for The Green Knight.
David Lowery’s The Green Knight, an adaptation of the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” defines new standards of Arthurian lore. Filled with spells, spirits and half-dwelling tree creatures, the tale of Sir Gawain renews the myth and the lore to a different aspect and turns into a poetic piece of cinema. Lowery’s interpretation of the poem is refreshing, gloriously beautiful with sounds that intensify the mission at hand. It’s a modern adaptation of the Middle Age poem, but considering the risky efforts to bring Gawain’s story, it deviates from the original source. But even then, The Green Knight is an excellent movie that explores the story of a young man who wants to bring glory to his name.
On Christmas night, Gawain (Dev Patel) visits his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere’s (Kate Dickie) court for their banquet. When Gawain arrives, he is surprised when his uncle asks him to sit in the chair beside him. King Arthur apologizes to Gawain for taking him for granted. Surrounded by King Arthur’s knights and spectators, Gawain feels like he is unworthy of sitting beside the king and queen. Suddenly, a half-human, half-tree dwelling creature arrives and issues a “Christmas game” for one of Arthur’s knights. The Green Knight proposes that his opponent must strike him down with an axe and if he succeeds, he must fall into the same fate a year later. Gawain accepts the challenge and strikes the creature down in one blow. The Green Knight stands up and picks his head, leaves the court, manically laughing, reminding Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel a year later.
A year passed and Gawain sets off on an adventure to the Green Chapel that tests his temptations and lust. “I’m not ready yet,” he whispered to his lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander) at the beginning of the movie. The truth is, he never was ready. He spent the year drinking and spending nights with his lover, unprepared for the journey that would ultimately seal his fate.
The most interesting part about the movie is that of when the story ends. There is a scene in which Gawain meets a gang of thieves and they confiscate his belongings believing that he is a knight. They tie him up and when one of the thieves discovers the axe left to Gawain by the Green Knight, he takes it and rides off with his horse. Gawain is left alone, unable to move or scream as he is gagged. The next few shots take the movie in a different spin. The camera spins around in a full circle to reveal the corpse of Gawain, and it seems like he has been stuck in that position for a long time. Once again, the camera spins around and Gawain is revealed to be in the flesh and suddenly, crawls towards the sword and frees himself.
This sequence alone made me wonder if the adventure of Sir Gawain was over — if the remainder of the movie was just a tale that the storytellers shared to keep the legacy of Gawain alive. During the puppet shows, Gawain meets the Green Knight and dies, his fate already written within these stories. This speculation and wonder become more of a dream rather than what would happen to Gawain. Maybe his destiny and fate were already written before he set out to meet the Green Knight; he had died in the forest, alone and wondering if anyone would save him.
Gawain’s journey does not end there. After freeing himself, he heads off to find a warm place to rest himself. At the abandoned house, he meets a mysterious woman, Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who asks him to look for his head at a nearby spring, even though her head is attached to her body. When he retrieves the skull he finds her skeleton at the bed and returns it to her. In the morning, he wakes up and the axe is returned to him. The series of events is mysterious. Perhaps, when Gawain went into the spring, he was brought back to life. Then he must have truly died in the forest. The reason for this conclusion is that when he swims in the spring, it turns into a different colour. Maybe he never left the banquet hall. There is not much truth that can be said about this movie as everything is left for us to speculate and wonder what the fate of Gawain is going to be in the end.
The perils Gawain is tested as he travels along the river and meets a Lord (Joel Edgerton) in a castle and his Lady (also played by Alicia Vikander), who bears the resemblance of his lover, Essel. There is an old woman with a bandage wrapped around her eyes who lives in the castle with the Lord and Lady. For Gawain, he wonders whether this is real or not, as he is being tested for his virtue and loyalty. The lady attempts to seduce Gawain for three days straight, but Gawain holds himself back from doing anything that would insult his host. After some sticky business, the lady hands Gawain the same sash that his mother (Saritha Choudhury) and tells him that he will be protected from now on. When he sees the old woman he panics. His mother wore the same bandage around her eyes when she summoned the Green Knight at the court. It seems as though his mother is watching his temptations fold in front of her, which is kind of creepy. He runs out of the castle and meets the Lord, and a strange and queer interaction happens between them: the Lord kisses Gawain.
In the poem, there is a sense that the interaction between the Lord and Gawain is simply meant to display the queer undertones in the movie. It’s speculated but whether the kiss is meant to mean more than what it seems to be is merely left for us to wonder. The kiss is not polite or strange, maybe it was meant to be a farewell kiss by the Lord who is aware of the path ahead for Gawain. Also, it is suggested that the Green Knight is someone that Gawain has met before. Whether his encounter with the Lord and Lady were illusions set by his mother, and maybe the Lady is his mother is up for us to question.
When Gawain enters the Green Chapel, he meets the creature. When the Green Knight tries to strike Gawain, he hesitates. Gawain is afraid. A young man who has not achieved glory in his life is going to die at the hands of a mystical tree-dwelling creature in the form of a human. When the Green Knight gets ready to strike one more time, Gawain shouts again. He sets himself ready one more time, but then shouts again and runs off into the forest, returning to Camelot.
When Gawain returns home before King Arthur knights him and dies alongside his queen, Gawain becomes King of Camelot. He is beloved by his people at the beginning. Essel gives birth to his son and in turn, he banishes her from seeing her son ever again, raising him in the courts. Gawain marries a young maiden who looks a lot like Winifred. King Gawain gets older, goes into battle with his son and watches him die, and when he returns home, he isn’t given the hero’s welcome. The citizens of Camelot despise him. At the end of the sequence, he sits on the throne with his new wife and their child, slowly his mother and his family abandon him, leaving him to sit on the throne all on his own before he removes his sash and his head detaches itself and falls to the ground, just like the Green Knight.
But it’s just a dream. For Gawain, seeing this vision makes him ready for what comes forth. He knows his fate. He has learned his virtues and the people who are going to bask in his glory are the people of Camelot. He surrenders, finally admits to himself, “I am ready.” A hero who was impetuous and with no ambition finally concludes his tale. Finally, he has a story to tell. Shame and failure were things that he could not bear to witness and taking the blow from the Green Knight truly showed his courage and integrity as a knight. A true knight. A brave knight.
It’s no wonder Lowery’s The Green Knight is a spectacle with glorious visuals and ambient sounds, which intensifies with the hero’s conflict and journey throughout the movie. Colourful lights are beamed in the movie to emphasize transformation, virtue and seeking truth, even the rebirth of Gawain in the spring is meant to be prophetic. Its beauty from start to finish, and the modernisation of the myth of Sir Gawain is something to behold in The Green Knight. Patel does an excellent job in expressing his emotions and puts a new spin on Gawain, showing him in his most vulnerable state. Patel leads the impetuous hero through the battlefields and mysterious spirits and leads the way to the Green Knight, ending the movie, ultimately, a hero and a knight with such charisma and talent. What particularly interested Patel’s role in this movie is that Arthurian legends are usually headed by white characters, and to see a South Asian as the lead role in this changes everything. Patel is also the lead in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. His presence in both of these films are magnificent and transforms the role and the story in a different way.
The Green Knight is astounding. It’s a magical experience of looking at the modern view of the dramatization of Gawain, regardless of whether they are a few changes from the original poem. Lowery’s vision of focusing on the visual and story is balanced altogether, even though the film can be a bit slow at times, which is a fault that most critics have pointed out. But personally, this movie is perfect. Lowery delivers one of the best movies of this year, despite the delay due to the pandemic, and it was all worth it. This masterful piece of work can be interpreted in many ways and that’s the best part of it. Stepping into the noble fantasy of Sir Gawain’s world is a place where I would like to escape from time to time. It’s adventurous with giants, spirits, tree-dwellers, and explores the themes of death and immortality without the realisation that maybe Gawain died in the forest. Regardless, The Green Knight is a spectacular adventure of a young man who learns the virtues of a knight.