Out of all the films that delayed their releases in 2020, I was most anticipated to see David Lowery’s “The Green Knight,” as it appeared to be a very mysterious, extravagant yet eerie fantasy film from its trailers. I was slightly familiar with the original Arthurian poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” but I wanted to go into this film partially blind to not get caught up with constantly comparing it to the original story. Fortunately, I was able to watch “The Green Knight” through a virtual one-night-only showing, and it did not disappoint.
The Arthurian tale basically follows Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) who strives for honor on his quest to confront the large mystical Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) after having decapitated him a year earlier. This film follows Gawain’s physical journey in finding the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, in addition to Gawain’s personal journey towards becoming a real knight, as highlighted by the film’s different chapters.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by “The Green Knight” in how it subverted my expectations and how unique it was to the medieval genre. It had vivid fantastical imagery, great performances by all actors (specifically Patel) and more notably, a slow dream-like appearance. This, alongside the film’s cryptic discussion of honor and fulfillment makes this tale less action-packed and more focused on the underlying motivations of a knight’s actions.
As much as I loved this film’s thought-provoking and deliberate pace, it is also the main reason audiences are divided. By taking its time and often relying on ambiguity, “The Green Knight” can sometimes feel overwhelming and difficult to connect to. Instead of mainly fighting in extravagant battles, Gawain interacts with different people, giants, animals and other beings – interactions that all vary in significance and sometimes appear confusing. Moreover, the ambiguity that Lowery includes also deviates from the clarity in the original tale, as identities of characters and actual events are clearer in the original.
Personally, I thought this slower, more thoughtful style was effective in highlighting the obstacles in Gawain’s self journey. This technique of showing rather than clearly explaining larger themes can be found in Lowery’s previous film, “A Ghost Story” (2017), which dealt with death and the struggle of letting go. The slow minimalist pace of “A Ghost Story” allowed the audience to interpret the story for themselves, which is what “The Green Knight” does in its ambiguity of Gawain’s journey. Lowery focuses on Gawain’s individual decisions (without being too obvious with what’s actually happening), letting the audience grapple with the importance of acceptance and legacy, the many costs of honor and even the role of mortality in this tale on their own. Regardless of how polarizing it is, “The Green Knight” is undoubtedly a unique film and a bold example of how different, unexpected adaptations can bring new and memorable significance to long-standing stories.