Greetings, fellow traveler! Mayhaps thou might have heard the classic tale of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, in which Gawain proves that he is an honorable knight by undertaking a lighthearted quest. What is this? Thou hast only watched David Lowery’s 2021 adaptation The Green Knight, in which Sir Gawain is portrayed as a drunken coward who lies and cheats his way through a quest so boring that the audience (mine own self) mayhap have fallen asleep? If thou hast not yet seen this wretched film, hark! For I will tell thee to save thy hard earned pennies for a pint of ale after a hard day of tilling, instead of wasting thine coppers on such a wretched film.
Synopsis: Based on the 14th century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the movie begins in King Arthur’s court on Christmas Day, when a mysterious Green Knight challenges the courtiers to a “beheading game.” Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight, who then tells him to travel to the Green Chapel in a year’s time to receive a reciprocal blow. Frightened, but determined to save face, Gawain sets off on a quest to the Green Chapel. Along the way, he faces several tests of his honor, including a band of thieves, a wronged woman, and a mysterious lord and lady.
My thoughts: Let me preface this review by saying that I know my opinion is an unpopular one. According to critical reviews, “The Green Knight honors and deconstructs its source material in equal measure, producing an absorbing adventure that casts a fantastical spell.” According to me, The Green Knight deconstructs its source material to the point of incoherence, producing a mind-numbing slog that will have you gazing wistfully at the exit sign by the 45 minute mark. But again, that’s just my opinion.
I have a tolerance for movies that emphasize style over substance. Less of a tolerance than an esteemed film critic, perhaps, but still a tolerance. While I love aesthetic-driven movies, my biggest pet peeve is the type of movie whose style obliterates its substance. The Green Knight is a perfect example of a movie so enamored with its “aesthetic” that it fails to say anything meaningful through its story or its characterization. And for a film that relies so heavily on an ancient text, the script does nothing to support the viewer through this 130 minute nightmare of moody cinematography, screeching score, and vaguely mystical dialogue. I think Rotten Tomatoes Audience Critic David L said it best when he wrote that the “plot misses the point of the original chivalric tale so badly that it’s nearly unrecognizable.”
I knew nothing about the original poem, so I walked into the movie blind. At the very least, I should have left the movie with an impression of the base text, but this adaptation is so far removed from its origin that if the opening sequence hadn’t mentioned King Arthur, I would have had no idea this was an Arthurian legend at all. After watching the movie and then reading some reviews, I was surprised to learn that Arthur, his queen Guinevere, and his infamous half-sister sister Morgan Le Fay had made an appearance in the movie after all. Can you blame me for missing them when not a single character was named beside Gawain and his love interest Essel? Perhaps if I knew the original poem, then I would have been able to infer that the king and queen in the movie were Arthur and Guinevere, and that Gawain’s shaman mother was Morgan Le Fay, but since I’d never read the poem, I was completely left in the dark. I don’t think it’s asking too much for a movie adaptation to introduce its principal characters to the audience, and The Green Knight‘s failure to do give its audience even the smallest crumbs of exposition or narrative context is just one example of how the film expects its audience to do the hard work on its behalf.
The movie’s second failure is its agonizingly slow pacing. From the camera lingering for minutes on a pastoral scene of a duck playing with a goat, to the thirty minutes spent watching Gawain trod monotonously through the gloomy Irish countryside, to what seemed like a century of listening to the criminally wasted Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton pontificate about the meaning of the color green, the pacing of the movie drips along as tortuously as Chinese water torture. I can find the merit in shots that last a moment longer than is comfortable for the audience, but what I can’t find merit in are shots that last minutes after anything of interest has faded from the screen. The movie clocks in at 130 minutes, and frankly, it should have been half of that. Instead of focusing on developing Gawain’s motivation, it focuses on developing a haunting atmosphere. And while the film’s visual aesthetic is beautiful, it’s also not enough to carry the movie, at least not for me.
The third and most important failure in The Green Knight is its inability to deliver any meaningful emotional impact. Trying to wring catharsis out of a movie built purely on an aesthetic foundation is like trying to get blood from a stone. This is clear from the first few scenes of the movie, when director David Lowery attempts to use composer Daniel Hart’s eerie score as a crutch to support the lack of emotion in his “emotional” scenes. Since the script has told us almost nothing about Gawain, it’s difficult for the audience to react properly when he makes decisions. When King Arthur asks him to tell a story, for instance, and Gawain says he has nothing to tell, how is the audience supposed to know this is a meaningful moment in the story when we know nothing about Gawain’s history or his relationship with his uncle? Luckily, the music blares in at the right moment to tell us that this scene is emotionally significant! Now cut and paste thirty more times. Lowery’s dialogue is so weak that he has no choice but to rely on Hart’s score to impart emotion into the film. I can only imagine how lackluster the edit was before they added the score.
Gawain is such a cipher to the audience that his interactions with other characters are almost incomprehensible. He acts in ways that oppose our traditionally held notions of how a knight should act, which would be novel and interesting if there were any motivations to his actions. For example, take the movie’s inciting action. In the original poem, Gawain volunteers to take up the Green Knight’s challenge when no other knights will; his willingness to accept the Green Knight’s mysterious challenge demonstrates his exceptional courage and character. The Gawain of this movie, however, has none of the same traits, and his motivation for accepting the challenge is unclear. Before he leaves for his quest, his lover Essel even tries to dissuade him, asking him why he needs greatness when he can settle for goodness. Gawain has no answer for this, either. Throughout his quest, Gawain fails several tests of “knightly chivalry.” This would be all well and good if it seems like Gawain learned to be chivalrous by the end of the movie, but after 130 minutes, the only thing he’s learned is honesty. And when you realize at the end of the movie that the whole quest was devised by his own mother as a test of his character, Gawain’s development seems even more anti-climactic.
Consequently, this movie version of Gawain is no fun to watch. He’s dull, cowardly, and indecisive. The only reason he has a change of heart at the end of the movie is because the Green Knight shows him a vision of the future where he becomes the villain of his own story. Gawain as we know him in the movie is the type of weak man who is easily corrupted by power, and we get to watch his evolution into a “man of honor” for precisely one minute before the movie ends. Talk about compelling stuff! A good “anti-hero” is a character whose imperfections make their story compelling. Gawain is an anti-hero only in the sense that he isn’t a hero. He’s a disappointingly mundane man who’s thrust into a quest because his mother got tired of him wasting his potential. Even Dev Patel can’t make Gawain into a character worth watching.
The majority of critics praised The Green Knight for all the flaws I mentioned above, lauding David Lowery for taking the classic chivalric romance and turning it on its head. In my eyes, Lowery took what could have been a fantastic adventure film and suffocated it under the weight of his pretentious interpretation of chivalry and honor. I can’t wait until this becomes a trend. Loved The Odyssey? Then you’ll love David Lowery’s new adaptation of Homer’s epic Telemachus: The Story of My Absent Father.
Final Thoughts: The Green Knight is a feast for the eyes, but provides little food for thought. Despite seeming to say a lot, the movie’s lack of any basic characterization, weak script, and disinterest in the core themes of the original poem combine to form a film that promises far more than it can deliver. If you’re looking for a gorgeously dark adaptation of a classic tale, why not spring for Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth instead? The Green Knight isn’t worth your green.