Studio A24 is known for their moody and atmospheric pieces that do not follow typical mainstream film conventions. Their newest release, The Green Knight, is no exception and adds another unique film experience to their portfolio. Directed by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story), The Green Knight is a retelling of Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a story that has been told and retold since the 14th century.
Dev Patel stars as the lead Gawain, depicted here as a young and restless man yearning to earn his place at the Round Table. His position in his society is made clear by his seat in the room, which is not at the Round Table itself, but rather behind the knights who are seated at it. He frequents a brothel and his lover there, Essel (Alicia Vikander), whom he refuses to commit himself to much to her behest.
The King, also Gawain’s uncle, asks Gawain to entertain him with a story of his life adventures. Gawain, however, admits that he has none yet to tell. The opportunity for an adventure presents itself promptly, as the Round Table’s Christmas celebration is cut short by the arrival of The Green Knight. This Knight, who appears as a tree-like humanoid creature, requests someone to take up a challenge against him. The challenge is this: If one of them can strike a blow against him, they must agree to meet with him one year hence and accept an equal blow in turn.
Gawain volunteers, eager to make a name for himself in front of the King and the Round Table. It is not much of a fight, as The Green Knight is in the mood for a rather interesting game, and so presents his neck openly to Gawain’s sword. Though thoroughly perplexed by the turn this challenge has taken, Gawain delivers the blow and severs The Green Knight’s head. He is not killed however, and grabs his decapitated head to remind Gawain of the challenge, expecting to meet him at The Green Chapel on the following Christmas Day.
A year passes and Gawain knows he must make his journey to fulfill his side of the bargain. It is a six day trip north, and armed with a belt of safety given to him by his mother, The Green Knight’s axe, and a necklace given to him by Essel, he ventures out in search of his fate.
Along the way, he runs into several people and creatures who present various obstacles to his trip including a wily scavenger (Barry Keoghan), the spirit Winifred (Erin Kellyman), and a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and familiar Lady (Vikander). The setting of this journey is the foggy rolling hills and dark woods of the UK, where it was filmed. Mystery and danger seems to hide behind every corner, therefore presenting tests to his courage and honor as a would-be knight.
This setting and dreamlike tone of the overall story make for a rather absorbing and visually stunning experience, even if the plot structure may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The cinematography favors wide, sweeping shots that showcase the scenery and let your eye wander. Darkness and shadow is nearly always in the frame, leaving an air of mystery ever-present. Patel’s features are highlighted with a tender viewpoint, emphasizing his utterly human vulnerability during these trying circumstances. With minimal special effects, nearly every shot of this film manages to be beautiful or unsettling (or both) and appears as a refreshing change of pace from the average overloaded summer blockbuster.
The structure of the story’s plot may be where this film loses some of its points with viewers. Keep in mind the poem of origin, which this film stays rather truthful towards, was written before the typical three act structure became so ingrained into the minds of both writers and audiences. This film does not rely on action scenes and wordy dialogue, but rather the movement of the characters through the world the film creates. Gawain is as confused as we are oftentimes, but goes along with the flow as best he can so that he can get on to his destination. Much goes unnamed and unexplained, which modern moviegoers may not appreciate. However, there is certainly much to think on and absorb, so those looking for a thought-provoking piece that keeps you intellectually curious and pondering for hours afterwards will enjoy this film’s unusual plot.
The heart of this story lies with Patel’s Gawain, who seems to be as lost on his journey as he is in his own understanding of himself. In this day and age when recognition and fame seem to be a major goal, particularly when it comes to social media and career, it is easy to recognize his struggle for knowing what honor and prestige are truly worth. All he knows as he begins his journey and accepts his challenge is that he wants to be knighted, but not much else. He does not accept the love of the woman who loves him and makes him smile because of her lower ranking in society that could tarnish his own reputation. The concepts of honor and courage are hollow words to him, though he believes that is what he should aspire to in order to meet his vision of what his future should be. The challenge and accompanying journey are a major test to Gawain’s own understanding of himself and what it means to be a knight, and will determine his actions when he finally meets with The Green Knight once again.
This film is definitely not for everyone, so those who find A24 more pretentious than entertaining may want to steer clear. It is certainly a slower moving film than the other titles currently in theaters, so there are plenty of other options available for anyone looking for a more upbeat and action-packed summer flick. Who will enjoy this film though, are any fans of the traditional Arthurian legends, artistic cinema aficionados, those looking for a break from typical narrative, and anyone looking to get out of the summer heat and instead have a moody and fog-heavy escape into dark woods and castles.