David Lowery’s The Green Knight is about to hit theaters and it’s unlike any Arthurian legend adaptation we’ve seen in decades. An adaptation of the groundbreaking, late 14th-century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the focus is not on King Arthur, but on his nephew, Gawain. Gawain is a young knight–untested, unproven, and desperate for something to establish his greatness, as all of Arthur’s loyal knights did before him.
That something comes in the form of a mysterious stranger of green who appears at Camelot during a Christmastime feast and challenges Arthur’s men to a game: He will allow one of them to attempt to land a blow on him, and should they succeed, they get his magnificent, mystical ax and glory. But, one year hence, they are to seek him out at his green chapel and he gets to return the blow. Gawain volunteers and succeeds in cutting the Green Knight’s head off–but when the knight calmly picks up his severed head and rides away, Gawain realizes that his death is imminent in one year. What follows is an epic quest as Gawain searches for the Green Knight, but more, it’s a journey of growth and the struggle of a wayward boy trying to become a noble man.
A24 is a studio known for taking chances on strange, brilliant films that often rewrite the genres they work in, or that create new subgenres entirely on their own. The Green Knight is another such film, with brilliant acting, visuals, writing and sound design coming together to create a sweeping dark fantasy that is epic in setting but intimate in scope. Is it worth seeing in theaters? Absolutely. Read on to learn why.
1. Dev Patel Proves Once Again He’s A Leading Man In Any Situation
Since his film debut in Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, Dev Patel has consistently shown he’s one of Hollywood’s most magnetic and compulsively watchable talents. With The Green Knight, he takes on a role unlike any he’s done before and handles it adeptly. Despite the epic trappings, The Green Knight has a very small cast and the work of carrying it falls squarely on Patel’s chainmail-clad shoulders; for vast swaths of the movie, it’s only him on screen–with a scene occasionally being shared with a CGI fox, that is. It requires a certain kind of skill and star power to command attention alone, and Patel is more than up to the task.
The Gawain of the film is slightly different than the Gawain in the original poem–he’s a little rougher, a little more of a wastrel when we meet him, and far less pure. But like the protagonists of all great heroes’ journeys, there’s greatness in him and Patel brings that to the forefront. He’s vulnerable, scared, naive, and he spends much of the first act blowing off his destiny, but you can still see the shape of the knight he will become, traditionally one of the greatest of Arthur’s knights in the classical mythology. While Gawain is older than most in this genre, there are still strong elements of the bildungsroman in his quest; Gawain has much to learn about the world and quite a bit of growing up to do. Patel manages both the boy and the man easily, and it makes for compelling viewing.
2. The Visuals Are Breathtaking
The entirety of The Green Knight was shot in Ireland, specifically at Ardmore Studios in County Wicklow and on location at Cahir Castle and its surrounding lands in County Tipperary. The vistas presented are absolutely stunning. Lowery brings a dreamlike quality to the style of the film that drives home the blurring of lines between the orderly and the chaotic, the safety of Camelot and the wild and dangerous natural world, the peace of Christianity and the fear of pagan magic. This is aided by the excellent work of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (who, fittingly, worked with Lowery previously on A Ghost Story), who is smart enough to let the natural landscape do a lot of his work for him. Wide-angle shots capture the wild beauty of the lands outside Camelot’s ordered borders, with Patel often framed in a way that emphasizes how small he is in the man vs. nature battle of The Green Knight. Once Gawain starts his quest, virtually every shot is worthy of being framed.
Fittingly, the film itself is also a perfectly balanced blend of natural beauty and fantastical CGI (provided by Weta Digital), with one particularly memorable scene involving Gawain cresting a cliff to find albino giants slowly lumbering across a misty plain on the other side. Lowery uses this mist and fog effect throughout the movie to subtly indicate when Gawain is at the border of worlds, passing from the rational world into the mystical. It creates an unsettling, eerie feeling aided by the deliberate sound design punctuated with natural, strange utterances like the call of crows and the life-death sound of plants growing and roots being ripped from the earth. The Green Knight is a sensory feast and a magnificent testament to the care and craftsmanship that went into the making of it.
3. It Gives Hollywood A Blueprint For Modern Arthurian Legend Movies
Hollywood has tried repeatedly in recent years to get Arthurian legend-inspired projects off the ground to no avail: Netflix canceled YA adaptation Cursed after one season; Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a costly flop; Joe Cornish’s delightful The Kid Who Would Be King sadly released without a ripple. If it’s not superheroes or spies (and, yes, I include the Fast & Furious franchise in that latter category), it’s hard to sell epic adventure these days. But The Green Knight is proof that it’s okay to experiment with Arthurian legend and make it something smarter and more arthouse; it doesn’t all have to be standard fantasy swords and shields or wildly reimagined modern-day stories. And it doesn’t have to all focus on Arthurian legend’s holy trio of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. There are dozens of knights mentioned in the classic literature dating back to the Middle Ages, with stories of Arthur himself dating back all the way to 829 A.D., and Arthurian legend has been continually added to and changed over the centuries, the Winchester Mystery House of mythology. Arthurian legend isn’t tired and tapped out, it’s simply that Hollywood keeps returning to the same part of the well.
The Green Knight smartly does away with almost all of the most popular elements of Arthurian legend adaptations. Arthur is a good man, but a secondary character; for once, he’s not the hero and he’s content to let another hero shine. It enables the story, for once, to be one few moviegoers already know by heart but something fresh and new. Nor does the film dumb things down for modern audiences. While the intellectual rigors of Arthurian mythology vary depending on the teller, it’s often been far more layered with meaning than modern adaptations would have audiences believe. Lowery’s adaptation, while taking some liberties with the poem, is about as close to a direct adaptation of any piece of Arthurian legend as we’ve had in quite some time. All of the medieval symbolism and religious allegory that another writer-director (and another studio) may have stripped from the story in order to turn it into a straightforward action-adventure, Lowery wisely leaves intact. The result is a much smarter and more fully realized adaptation despite the fact it’s one of the most self-contained stories from the mythology. If The Green Knight is proof of what Hollywood can still do with Arthurian legend, then more adaptations need to be handled by indie studios and inventive filmmakers than churned out in the hopes of being the next tentpole franchise.
The Green Knight is in theaters on Friday, July 30.