After months of distribution problems and uncertainty, David Lowery’s ‘The Green Knight’ is finally available on these shores both in cinemas and on streaming through Amazon Prime. Based on the ancient medieval legend of Gawain and the Green Knight, the film follows Dev Patel as nephew to the mythical King Arthur as he sets out on a quest to the green chapel, encountering many dangers and challenges along the way.
The casting is one of the film’s greatest strengths, boasting a litany of superb actors, each of which perfectly brings the tale to life. As the leading role, Dev Patel’s Gawain carries the entire picture, offering up an imperfect but noble character out on a journey of discovery. Patel’s performance is one of the strongest elements of the film, being able to hold up the story even as the pace dips and the journey takes a diversion, always portraying the more human side of Gawain largely absent from the source material. Patel’s strength is only complimented by the variety of showings from the other cast members, such as Sean Harris’s portrayal of a weakened and feeble King Arthur and Erin Kellyman’s eerie and ghostly Winifred, but a discussion of casting cannot forget to include Ralph Ineson as the eponymous Green Knight. Appearing for mere minutes at the beginning and end of the film, Ineson’s performance instils such fear and authority that he remains a feared figure throughout the runtime despite remaining absent. This is indicative of the real strength in its casting, using its brilliant performances in the most effective way possible, not overloading the viewer but always keeping them wanting more.
Lowery chooses to make the story his own, changing a number of details about the original tale such as stripping Gawain of his knighthood and making Morgana le Faye a member of Arthur’s court and Gawain’s mother rather than keeping her in the wings. In doing so Lowery succeeds in telling a new story, changing the Gawain’s character quite dramatically in the process. Dev Patel’s version of the character does not embark upon the quest to prove the honour of himself and of the court he represents, instead he does it to establish his place within the world, offering a coming-of age tone to this fantasy epic. This change of dynamic offers a far more compelling watch as we stay with stay with Gawain through his trials and tribulations.
Though the cold hard facts of the film, the plot, the performances, the inspiration, are useful in understanding the idea of the movie, they don’t capture the essence of the picture as its strongest quality is something a lot less easy to quantify. The picture is designed to be enjoyed more as a theatrical experience more than as a consistent narrative with scenes orchestrated to bypass critical thought and evoke strong emotions. Lowrey seeks to avoid grounding his story in any kind of historical facts and instead revels in the fantastical nature of the original poem, hoping to evoke the same feelings of wonder and awe in a modern audience that its original admirers felt many centuries ago.
The mythical nature of the story is reinforced by Lowery through strange and shocking visuals, such as introducing bright vibrant colours to a scene with no story significance or reasoning and portraying otherworldly creatures as naturally as any other characters and with no explanation. The film comes across as an ethereal dream with strange elements disappearing as quickly as they had arrived all through the lens of a misty, almost blurry atmosphere in which reality is left at the door and rational questions are displaced.
Though the wondrous style plays well in many aspects, it is not uniformly perfect and does sometimes play to the detriment of the story itself. The film feels forced, even messy in some areas and there are several examples of Lowery’s desire for uniqueness backfiring, choosing to include elements from the original tale only to discard them and their original significance a few minutes later. Whilst a feeling of bewilderment is often used to great effect in the picture there are occasions where the disorientation does not turn to wonder but rather to boredom and it is in these areas where the pace of the film grinds to a standstill.
The inclusion of Winifred, a character not present in the original poem, serves to make the picture more confusing. Based on the tale of St Winifred of Wales, another medieval myth, this side plot does very little to enhance the film itself and can lead to the audience feeling more uncertain that amazed.
In conclusion, The Green Knight is one of the most unique films of this year and offers an enthralling watch to those interested in the fantasy genre. Though it’s bizarre and outlandish nature may be enough to turn away some viewers looking for a straightforward medieval fantasy flick, its cinematography and cast make something that really has to be experienced as you may not see anything like it again.
Watch on Amazon Prime: The Green Knight
Add the classic to your collection: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Classics)