We’ve seen Arthurian legend done in just about every way you can think. We’ve seen action epics, we’ve seen high fantasy BBC series, Disney movies, kids in the Court, comics, even comics adapted into Netflix series, and retellings from a marginalized perspective. To say that Arthurian legend is a trail well traveled is an understatement. That said, the fact that all of these stories revolve around relatively the same elements, that also means that the body of stories and medieval romances that are Arthur adjacent are ripe for adapting. That’s where The Green Knight comes in.
The Green Knight is written and directed by David Lowery and is filled with a stunning cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, and Ralph Ineson. At just over two hours, this long-awaited A24 film consumes the viewer right from the beginning with a foundation of decadent visuals, and I don’t just mean close-ups of Patel.
The film is poised to be an epic fantasy adventure, even if it finds itself oscillating between dry period piece to high fantasy fever dream with rotating cameras and beings that are definitely not human. Based on a timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger who is more tree than man. Over the course of the two-hour film, Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and marauders while on a journey that turns quickly from duty and glory to an internal quest all its own.
With no specific identity outside wanting to be a knight, Gawain is forced to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family, kingdom, and the beings he meets along the way. The ultimate test of faith and courage occurring in the film’s final act when he confronts the Green Knight in his chapel.
It has to be said that if you go in expecting anything close to the adaptations I mentioned at the start of this review, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead, The Green Knight offers conflict by way of spiritual and emotional strife versus the action and sword-fighting that we’ve come to know and love with this subgenre of high fantasy. But what the movie lacks in action, it makes up for in visual storytelling.
Lowery’s lens captures magic in every scene, whether it’s a room in a brothel, on a battlefield, or on a mountain looking at giants. Every piece of The Green Knight is filled with whimsy and beauty that moves from fantastical to somber and then in moments, blends the two. The magic in every scene is cut by Gawain’s growing fear and insecurity. His doubt creeps in and infects his journey. At the start of the film, Gawain is cocky and self-assured in the middle, he’s uncertain and scared, and in its finale, he’s at peace.
It’s this trajectory that allows Patel to showcase the breadth and depth of his acting prowess. In fact, while the decadent visuals could easily swallow a lesser actor, Patel is the focal point. He grounds the magic, the fantasy, and commands it with a strong emotive presence that is palpable even in silence. Patel is a sight to behold, a man on screen who holds your attention even when a giant tree of a man is next to him.
While Lowery knows landscapes, utilizing them to build atmospheric elements as much as he uses score and dialogue, what completes every scene is the costuming. Each costume is luxurious and layered with elements of storytelling contained within them. Blue gowns with deep v-cuts, ghostly white gowns, a yellow cloak that is flipped to it’s blue-side as the film progresses, and of course, the crowns that act as sacred imagery.
That said, overwhelming is a good word to describe The Green Knight. There are levels to the iconography in each scene and each choice that are striking, but so much so that the viewer can lose focus on the actual story. Truthfully, I’m going to have to watch The Green Knight again, I can’t tell you if that’s a good thing or not.
The film is a visual feast for every viewer, but it may prove too inaccessible with its pacing and confusing narrative structure, not to mention those with motion sickness may need to step out with some of the camera inversions utilized throughout the film. But the fact that Patel remains strong against it, is a testament to his talent.
The Green Knight exists in this awkward space for me as a reviewer. It’s gorgeous, filled with breathtaking performances, and takes on Arthurian Legend like we haven’t seen before, especially in a film as anticipated as this one. But with all of that said, it’s hard for me to find the specific audience to recommend the film to beyond the traditional A24 fans that lean into the uncanny and sometimes confusing indies that never disappoint on visuals.
That said, The Green Knight is a film that I’m happy I saw. It’s one that I haven’t stopped thinking about. It’s sexual, sensual, whimsical, and unsettling. It’s a film with a lead that can move mountains through his expansive range of emotive moments. It’s a film that embraces high fantasy while also turning it on its head. And it’s also a film that I can’t categorize, one that I have a hard time placing. If this all intrigues you, then The Green Knight is well-worth seeing opening night.
The Green Knight is playing in theaters nationwide on July 30, 2021.
The Green Knight
- Rating - 8/108/10
The Green Knight is a film that I’m happy I saw. It’s one that I haven’t stopped thinking about. It’s sexual, sensual, whimsical, and unsettling. It’s a film with a lead that can move mountains through his expansive range of emotive moments. It’s a film that embraces high fantasy while also turning it on its head. And it’s also a film that I can’t categorize, one that I have a hard time placing.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.