The Green Knight (2021), Truly Epic Fantasy

David Lowry extends his run as a perplexingly chimeric maker of very good films with The Green Knight, which might be one of his finest achievements yet. 

Based on the epic poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, The Green Knight follows Dev Patel as the famous Arthurian character, Sir Gawain. After being called to King Arthur’s round table, beautifully realised in this film, he is confronted by the titular Green Knight, played by Ralph Ineson in this picture. The Green Knight declares that any knight that can land a blow on him will win his green axe but will have to return to him at some point in the future to receive the same blow. What happens is unexpected in the extreme. No other knight will step up and so the weedy, boyish, gregarious, impotent Sir Gawain steps up to earn his honour… and the Green Knight yields. He kneels down, and presents his neck to be severed. Now, what I, or I think anyone else would do in this scenario, is just graze him and call it a day, but Dev Patel, as if compelled by some strange sense of fate or destiny, chops off his head. You wonder if this is because of the quite logical thought that if he has no head, then he need not take yours because, well… he’ll be dead, or if this is some strange, metaphysical, mystical, sense of destiny that he’s drawn to, and these dual ideas really battle it out in the film. This is only exacerbated when the Green Knight picks up his severed head and leaves. A year later, Gawain leaves on an epic journey to solidify his honour, knowing how it must end. 

The fact must be stated that I watched this movie 11 days ago, and I’m sitting down to write this review and I’m already discovering new things about it, I’m still having new revelations. This is really the appeal of this movie. It is a grandiose, beautiful, dense, rich movie that rewards patient viewing, and unveils its secrets to those willing to find them. 

This film represents a culmination of many things for director David Lowery. Although he was always deeply indebted to the early works of Terrence Malick as so many are, with every subsequent film he’s only pushed the boat out more and more on his initial aesthetic. With A Ghost Story he really put a mark in the sand to establish him as a director worth paying attention to. That’s really the movie where he said he was done with playing around, here is a movie that is holistic and unique in concept and execution and I’m willing to take these kinds of risks. It’s a slow, beautiful, meditative piece that aims to break new ground as an art film in a way Lowery hadn’t really before. His next film was a strange left turn but an equally singular piece in The Old Man & The Gun, a warm and snuggly crime caper that riffed on classic Robert Redford pictures, that while being very different from his previous work, was still a film that really set Lowery apart as a filmmaking name. The Green Knight is another left turn for Lowery, taking us into the realms of Arthurian fantasy. It’s also his longest film by quite a bit, as it needs to be. It’s adding yet another string to his bow in a series of hard left turns that are utterly unpredictable. It’s a culmination of a lot of ideas that run through Lowery’s work like identity, self-expression, time, fate, ageing, legacy, and visions of worth. 

Gawain’s impotency plays a central role in this film, which at first sight seems strange and crass but reveals much of the film’s poetry. How much of what he did was an attempt to avoid consequences, of not being honourable, of being a coward? The arc of the film in many ways is about him finding bravery in accepting the inevitability of the consequences of his actions and owing up to them. He wants honour without the work, he wants to fulfil a typically masculine idea of who a man is without being able to get it up and without allowing himself to be fully human. In the end, it is only by recognising his weaknesses and vulnerability that he finds peace. It is only by realising what his current state yields that he realises his folly. It’s hard to unpack without spoiling the movie, but this movie subverts the current Hollywood rubric of what an Arthurian Knight looks like. It subverts these ideas of what honour means in the context of a contemporary retelling of an old story. It says so much about what is so wrong with men and society today. Really the genius of doing this is that Dev Patel is still amazingly charismatic and watchable and likeable the whole time. 

The film is also just visually gorgeous. The film’s epic scope is aided by the sumptuous visuals. There’s a distinctly Bela Tarr energy to the pacing of this film, which isn’t a problem. It reminds me a lot of Werckmeister Harmonies which is one of my favourite films ever. Fans of Stalker will also find joy here but more than either of those films, The Green Knight is very episodic. 

The Green Knight captures that sense of an epic poem that inspired a similar element in Tolkein’s fantasy where it feels very much like Gawain is travelling from one episodic encounter to the next, but each seems to inform his character in some deeply metaphysical way. Whether it’s an encounter with a thief that leads him to visions of doom or its an encounter with giants or it’s a strange interlude with Joel Edgerton that seems at once strange with this eerie, quasi The Twilight Zone, quasi The Stepford Wives energy. You know this is an encounter meant to test him spiritually in some way, (as it turns out it could easily have gone into Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Zoot and Castle Anthrax territory and the fact that it doesn’t and ends up incredibly dramatically resonant is really a testament to the film), but you’re not sure how. The whole film has this creeping sense of revelation, like this is all some spiritual test and the answer will tell us something deep and true about our lives, which in a way it is. It’s far less comparable to something like ‘The Hobbit’ in its episodic nature where something is gained and learned at every step. It’s more akin to ‘Dante’s Inferno’, where at every step a darkness is revealed and something is lost but wisdom and truth are gained. 

It’s worth commenting on the actors and performances here. Sean Harris stars here as King Arthur, credited just as ‘King’, with Kate Dickie as ‘Queen’ and they both deliver quite astonishing performances of their respective characters. They’re both favourite actors of mine who deliver standout performances in every movie I’ve seen them in, (for a great Sean Harris vehicle, you just have to see Possum). They narrow in on a demeanour and accent that is unlike anything you’ve seen before in a movie like this but makes perfect sense. Especially in a version of the Arthurian world where the round table looks like something that would come out of a Kubrick movie. Ralph Ineson is at once gruff, and stoic, and, in the end, deeply empathetic as the Green Knight, under all that makeup. These are just a few of the perfectly cast roles in this movie filled with wonderful British actors, each of whom get completely the right measure of the material.

To conclude, this is how you do truly epic filmmaking. This is truly a film of majesty and scope. It’s so hilarious to see so many blockbusters and Marvel films aim for this level of grandiose impressiveness while David Lowry is making it look easy with this story of an Arthurian knight and a magic cum rag.

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