James Jay Edwards reviews The Green Knight, a medieval film written and directed by David Lowery and based on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (A24)
Arthurian Legend has been documented heavily in movies from Excalibur and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword to Camelot and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been sorely underrepresented. At least, until now. Writer/director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon) and A24 have brought The Green Knight to the (round) table.
The Green Knight begins on Christmas as King Arthur (Sean Harris from Prometheus) and his subjects enjoy a holiday feast. During the festivities, a hulking beast known as the Green Knight (The Witch’s Ralph Ineson) bursts in and proposes a game. One of Arthur’s knights can come forward and attempt to land a blow on him and, one year later, that knight must travel to the Green Chapel where the Green Knight will return the blow.
(The Green Knight, theatrical release poster, courtesy A24)
Arthur’s court is taken aback by this challenge, but the King’s nephew, a shy and reserved aspiring knight named Gawain (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire), accepts the dare. Borrowing Arthur’s own sword, Gawain strikes a blow—and beheads the Green Knight. To everyone’s shock, the beast picks up his head and rides away to wait for the year to pass.
That sounds like a lot of story, but this is just the setup. Most of The Green Knight is about Gawain, after living like a hero for one year, leaving his mother (Evil Eye’s Sarita Choudhury) and lover (Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander) to honor his part of the bargain. He journeys across the land, encountering colorful characters from thieves to giants, both friends and foes, as he makes his way to the Green Chapel to allow the Green Knight to strike the return blow.
(The Green Knight, photos by Eric Zachanowich, courtesy A24)
As far as King Arthur movies go, The Green Knight is more Excalibur than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a beautiful film, with wistful and active cinematography from Andrew Droz Palermo (You’re Next) and a hauntingly period score from Daniel Hart (who has done music for nearly all of Lowery’s movies). As Gawain’s quest goes on, it gets more and more surreal, until it almost feels like he is in a fever dream. Which, considering some of the obstacles he faces along the way, he very well may be.
The cast of The Green Knight is stacked. Obviously, Patel carries the brunt of the work, but the supporting cast is exceptional. Sean Harris is a commendable king, frail yet wise, still commanding of power in his old age. Alicia Vikander plays double duty as Gawain’s lover at the kingdom and the Lady of an estate that offers him refuge along the way. Speaking of that safe haven estate, its sympathetic Lord is portrayed by Joel Edgerton (It Comes at Night, The Gift). Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Erin Kellyman (Solo: A Star Wars Story) also pop in for small but pivotal roles as a scavenger and a ghostly young girl, respectively (Kellyman’s scene is one of the highlights of the film—she’s unforgettable).
(The Green Knight, photo by Eric Zachanowich, courtesy A24)
Part long journey movie and part supernatural horror flick, The Green Knight is a feast for both the eyes and the brain. There are a few versions of the Gawain/Green Knight story, and David Lowery’s adaptation here raises a few questions about them all, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a remarkable film. It must be seen to be believed.
Just as there was with Saint Maud, there has been a lot of hype surrounding The Green Knight, since it was just about to be released when the pandemic basically forced the closure of the whole world. Luckily, and also like Saint Maud, The Green Knight lives up to that hype. It’s absolutely and unequivocally worth the wait.
The Green Knight is in theaters now.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.