The King’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) lives a life of excess and debauchery, spending most of his nights sleeping at the brothel with his favorite sex worker Essel (Alicia Vikander) and drinking. His mother (Sarita Choudhury) wants more for her son and hatches a plan. On Christmas Day, Gawain is enjoying the feast at the King’s celebration while his mother and three other women cast a spell to conjure a challenge to her son’s bravery. Bursting through the doors of the yuletide feast, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) rides into the hall and offers up a game: Whoever can land a blow against him will be given the Green Knight’s mighty axe to use for a year. But next Christmas, the challenger will meet him at the green chapel and receive an equal blow in return. At first there is silence, then Gawain agrees to accept the challenge. Asking for a sword, the King (Sean Harris) provides his. The Green Knight stands still, confusing Gawain. Gawain then attacks, cutting off the Green Knight’s head. Thinking that is the end of it, Gawain and all in attendance are shocked when the topless body stands and retrieves the still living head. The Green Knight reminds Gawain to meet him in one year at the green chapel and rides off laughing. Dreading his likely approaching doom, Gawain continues his aimless life until a week before he is to meet the Green Knight. He then begins a perilous journey over the countryside, encountering bandits, spirits, giants, a friendly fox, and a strange couple living in a castle in the middle of nowhere, as he prepares to face his fate at the green chapel.
I was really looking forward to “The Green Knight.” It had a terrific trailer featuring a floating crown lowering onto Dev Patel’s head, then he bursts into flame. The design of the Green Knight looked amazing. The booming baritone of Ralph Ineson is a plus in every movie. The cinematography of the barren, cold Irish landscape appeared to be as much of a character as anyone in the film. I’d been aware of the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” since high school but remembered little of it. So, this movie had been at the top of my want to see list since the first trailer back in earlier 2020. Naturally, with COVID shutting down most film releases, the world had to wait until now to get a peak at this epic Arthurian legend on the big screen. Despite all my eagerness to see the film, I walked out wondering what I’d watched.
“The Green Knight” is a glorious looking film. The landscapes of Ireland where most of the exteriors were shot, is gorgeous. Filters were likely used to darken the surroundings, giving the film an ominous look, suggesting doom would pop up at any moment. Enormous care was taken to recreate the medieval period during which King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were supposed to live. The interiors of castles, homes, brothels and inns is appropriately dark and dank. The buildings are composed of either stone or wood with very little metal visible. No one looks especially healthy with even Gawain often appearing on the verge of collapse and the King frequently wheezing when he expends even the slightest effort. You can almost smell the B.O. from the population’s unwashed bodies as you follow Gawain walking down the damp streets or sitting down to enjoy an ale in the local pub or brothel.
The Green Knight is a glorious villain (if that’s what he really is) with a body appearing to be composed entirely of carved wood. He creaks and cracks as he walks and with the voice of Ralph Ineson, he sounds appropriately menacing. We only get two scenes featuring the Green Knight and I wanted more of him. To me he was the most interesting person in the film.
While many fascinating things happen in “The Green Knight,” they pose questions that are rarely answered. In the opening scene, we see a gate leading into a walled city. The thatch roof of a building is on fire, a woman gets on a horse and a man pulls a sword from the horse’s saddle preparing to defend against an enemy. We then pull back to see that’s the view from Gawain’s bed in the brothel and a completely different scene plays out with no explanation of what happened to the man and woman, and why that building was on fire. Did the couple start the fire? Is it a diversion so they can escape from her abusive husband and be a couple? Did they just kill rob and kill someone and set the fire to hide their crime? In the end, it doesn’t matter as we never see that couple again. While this is the most non sequitur scene in the film, it certainly isn’t the only one.
It makes me wonder if the film’s narrative is merely a parable within a parable. Gawain’s journey is the story of a man waiting to be provided with meaning and purpose for his life when he’s the one responsible for providing that meaning. Perhaps writer/director David Lowery is telling the audience we are meant to find our own meaning in the film and not depend on it being spelled out for us. Normally, I’d be on board for that interpretation, but I can’t find enough clues or enough depth to work out what I’m supposed to learn as a viewer.
“The Green Knight” is rated R for violence, some sexuality and graphic nudity. There is the beheading that starts the adventure. It is somewhat bloody. We see some animals killed in various hunts. A skeleton is shown hanging from a suspended cage. There are scenes of post-battle fields filled with dead bodies. There are some sex scenes that are brief and contain little nudity. An odd scene appears to involve sex as the evidence is shown on Gawain’s hands at the end. A group of naked giants are shown walking with brief views are bare breasts and buttocks. A scene late in the film shows a head falling off a body. A ghost’s head is shown rolling on the floor and speaking. There is a scene of vomit. A scene of a woman giving birth and that baby being taken away from the mother may cause some distress.
I wanted to love “The Green Knight,” I really did. It has a great cast, is based on a thrilling tale of knights and sorcery and romance and adventure and looks like a well-crafted fantasy. Despite all that’s going for it, I wondered what the point was as the credits rolled (and there is a brief scene late in the credits if you’re interested, but it didn’t help the film make sense) and I considered what I’d seen. While most of the real critics love the movie and it is a beautiful looking piece of work, I just don’t get it. It’s above my head. I lack the depth to fully grasp its meaning and I never have to see it again.
“The Green Knight” gets two stars out of five.
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