Many of us read the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in high school or college. While scholars far more knowledgeable than me will doubtlessly spend hours comparing and contrasting director David Lowery’s adaptation, The Green Knight, with its inspiration, I’ll start by saying I don’t recall the story beginning in a brothel.
The Gawain (Dev Patel) of the film, who is not yet a knight, is King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) nephew, and it’s strongly implied that Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury) is Morgan le Fay, the legendary witch. After spending Christmas Eve in the company of his favorite prostitute, Essel (Alicia Vikander), Gawain plays like he’s going to mass the next morning, but really just crashes at home until he can go celebrate Christmas at the Round Table with Arthur and his knights.
While talking with his uncle, Gawain realizes the shame he feels at his lack of honor, and the Queen (Kate Dickie) gently reminds him not to take lightly the fact that he is surrounded by legends. The festivities are interrupted by the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) entering with a challenge. Anyone who remembers the poem will know, someone is to strike the Knight and in one year travel to the Green Chapel to receive the same blow. Only Gawain answers. He cuts off the Knight’s head, but the Knight picks it up and leaves, reminding Gawain, “One year hence!”
As the time grows near, King Authur has to give the reluctant Gawain a little nudge to follow through on his commitment, while Essel tries to persuade him to stay. His episodic journey has him encounter challenges that represent each of the five virtues of a knight: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. And he dismally fails each and every one.
Whether or not Gawain finds redemption in this dark and surreal retelling of the legend, where the pagan elements are given equal emphasis with the Christian, is deliberately ambiguous. The Green Knight is not a fantasy adventure movie. It is a psychological horror, art-house film.
That said, there are also scenes that are simply stunning. The dreamy cinematography and stained glass-like compositions provide an appropriate sense of legend on screen. Gawain’s encounter with a group of giants is truly awesome, and the score is perfect. Unfortunately, for all the wonder, there is no joy, no humor, no true beauty. The truth is obscured.
Of the unknown original poet, J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon theorized in the introduction to their translation: “He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humor; he had an interest in theology and some knowledge of it....” One wishes the same could be said of Lowery. All the right notes and lyrics are here, but it’s a song sung by someone who doesn’t know the tune. (A24, streaming now on Amazon Prime)