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The Green Knight (2021) By David Lowery - Movie Review

The Green Knight (2021) By David Lowery - Movie Review

The Green Knight (2021) by David Lowery Writer: David Lowery (Screenplay), Anonymous (late 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance poem) Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Joel Edgerton, Helena BrowneEmmet O'Brien Runtime: 130 min Rated: 14A (Canada) R (MPAA) for violence, some sexuality and graphic nudity. 

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers)

A Knight’s Tale: Tried, Tested and Inverted.

This eerie and foreboding retelling of the epic late 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a purposeful inversion of the long-studied and revered anonymous work. While it diverges at some points from the general narrative of the original poem which Gewain purists will dislike, more than that, it also reverses almost all the story’s elements. This raises the question: to what end? Why invert so many things? What is the purpose? In this way The Green Knight presents a mystery.

The general story of both the 14th century poem and David Lowery’s film is that of a beheading game and an exchange-of-winnings game. On Christmas a mysterious and formidable Green Knight with a menacing fell ax comes to the court of King Arthur in Camelot. While they are seated at the round table celebrating the birth of Christ, the Green Knight challenges Arthur and his knights to a game. The Green Knight will allow a single blow from one of the assembled knights and then he will return that blow if he can. The Green Knight kneels and offers up his neck. Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, meets the challenge cuts off the Green Knight’s head but to the surprise of everyone the Knight picks up his head and tells Gawain that one year hence he will return the blow at his Green Chapel. As the following year nears its close Gawain sets out to find the Green Knight and his chapel. With only a couple days to his appointment with the Green Knight Gawain finds himself in the castle of Lord Bertilak who engages him in an exchange-of-winnings game. Each day the Lord goes hunting he will give Gawain the best of what he catches and in return Gawain gives to the castle’s Lord what he gains that day. The Lord’s wife seeks daily to entrap Gawain sexually yet he resists her advances. They exchange kisses and Gawain withholds from the Lord the last gift from the Lady of the castle—a green sash she claims will protect against any attack. With the sash about his waist, Gawain departs to face the Green Knight and his doom.

If the film presented by Lowery follows the same general story laid out in the poem how does the writer/director invert it? It would stand to reason that if the film follows the general narrative the story should be faithful. Yet it is not. Yes, the broad strokes are similar, but many things are turned on their heads. For example: the poem is about a knight who despite having his virtue tested succeeds in remaining a knight— albeit a repentant one. The film however is about a man who gains virtue through testing only becoming a true knight in the end. In the poem Gawain is a courageous knight of the round table dubbed by Arthur before the story begins; in the film Gawain is dubbed a knight by the Green Knight only after facing the prospect of death honestly.  In the poem Gawain is generous, courteous, chaste, friendly, and devout; in the film he is agnostic at best, socially awkward, unchaste, discourteous, and covetous. In the poem he is generally selfless; in the film he is generally selfish. In the poem Gawain succeeds in the face of adversity; in the film he is dragged along kicking and screaming by the plot until the film’s final frames.

Perhaps Lowery simply intended to subvert expectations in the character of Gawain (Dev Patel). This is somewhat hard to believe in part due to Lowery’s obfuscation of who the principal characters are. He doesn’t give the audience any indications or hints that the king is Arthur (Sean Harris) or that his queen is Guinevere (Kate Dickie). Gawain’s mother in the film is Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) King Arthur’s half-sister and sorceress but she is never referred to by name and in the poem she would be Gawain’s aunt not his mother. Merlin (Emmet O'Brien) is there too but has no dialogue and no one says his name. On the one hand this shifts the attention onto Gawain and away from anything the audience knows about Arthurian legend. On the other hand it creates a situation where only those in the know understand what’s going on. That last part is a kind of occulting: a purposeful hiding in plain sight. When someone in the know figures out who all these people are they are confronted with the fact that Lowery has purposely presented them differently than they appear in the poem. Is this a commentary on the danger of trusting myths?[1] Or is it something else?   

With this in mind, the film’s title, The Green Knight, serves a dual meaning as it can refer to the Knight Gawain seeks while it can also refer to Gawain as being “green” in terms of his personal experience as a knight.

With Gawain as the film’s protagonist viewers are repeatedly challenged with his inverted character. Putting the best construction on Lowery’s motivations this monumental change in Gawain’s character may be due to the current state of western culture. In a world where people are seldom challenged to struggle against temptation a more believable story would be one in which a character learns hard truths by experience.              

This interpretation would be easier to digest if the pattern of inversion didn’t crop up almost everywhere. In the poem Christmas is described with exuberance and mirth and colour full of excitement; in the film Christmas is drab, grey and dour. Arthur in the poem is young, vital, and full of life and virtue; in the film he is old and weak in body and spirit. In the poem going to church is a delight, something grand and important and full of joy; in the film it is a nuisance or the butt of jokes. In the poem Gawain sets out in fine armour and knightly regiments, carrying a shield decorated on the inside with a painting of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. He fights dragons and monsters of all sorts successfully before arriving at the Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Alicia Vikander) Bertilak’s castle; in the film Gawain is quickly set upon by a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) and his fellow thieves. He is accosted, robbed and left for dead, his beautifully painted shield broken and left as trash when Gawain’s assailants leave him to rot. In the poem the shield is a source of comfort and encouragement; in the film it is left behind as useless. Even the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) who in the poem is a man decked in fine green-glowing kingly attire, flaming red eyes, and set as an equal with Arthur, is a monster in the film made of bark and branch, twig and root with clear and keen eyes like a man. It goes on and on with one thing after another flipped on its head even as the overall story continues unfolding as in the poem. This is often called “re-imagining” or a “deconstruction” but Lowery doesn’t just deconstruct he re-constructs presumably to suit his purpose. But what is that purpose? Is it criticism of virtue? Is it a parody of the original text? Is it a slight against the poem’s Christian themes and the rigour of Christian piety in favour of paganism? If it’s a parody it’s nothing like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).     

At a critical moment in the film when she is about to give Gawain the green sash Lady Bertilak – yet another nameless character along with her husband – asks Gawain a key question, “Do you believe in magic?” to which the Christian should answer, “I believe it to be evil and forbidden by God.” While both the Gawain of the poem and the film take the sash to their shame, in the film Lowery adds an additional dimension: the green sash is soiled during the third of the Lady’s sexual advances toward Gawain. But that’s only the half of it. In a departure from the poem’s text Lowery has Gawain’s mother in the film, Morgan le Fay, give it to him before he sets out on his quest. Later, scavengers steal the green sash along with other items and it shows up as a gift from Lady Bertilak. (As an aside, the Lady Bertilak and Gawain’s prostitute sex partner Essel from the beginning of the film are played by the same actress further presenting Gawain as sexually impure and unchaste from the beginning of the film right through to this critical moment.) The question “Do you believe in magic?” when taken in the context of Lowery’s constant and well-considered inversion of the original story and its characters, along with additions like a talking spirit/animal guide in the form of a fox[2], suggests that the whole film is a kind of sigil magic; a kind of symbolic rich celluloid spell cast to some private end. This is hard to know for certain without the director saying so directly. However Lowery is no stranger to the occult. He directed two episodes, Ritual of Abduction, and Augurs of Spring, of the CBS All Access TV Series Strange Angel (2018) about Jack Parsons, pioneering rocket engineer and scientist in 1940s Los Angeles, who was a follower of British occultist Aleister Crowley. Also, The Green Knight’s production company A24 also produced Ari Aster films Midsommar (2019) and Hereditary (2018) as well as Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) along with other sophisticated art-house-style “elevated” horror films. Within the first minutes of The Green Knight Lowery clues in the audience that this film is going to be less high adventure like The Lord of the Rings and more an introspective psychological horror film like the ones mentioned. These films are cut from the same cloth in many ways and the association is worth noting. The Green Knight is less gory but shares many of the same attributes including their approach to the occult and magic.

With a 14A/R rating this will be a film watched primarily by adults and is certainly not something for young viewers. One interesting note: when it comes to inversions like the ones found in The Green Knight for them to have any meaning, they must first presuppose the truth of the thing being inverted. So, while Christianity is subverted and downplayed in The Green Knight some of the Christian content of the original poem remains to haunt Lowery’s film regardless of his intentions. Interested viewers coming at the film cold with no knowledge of the poem may find themselves reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight out of curiosity and will find something altogether different from what they watched. Because of the film’s suspicious nature it would be hard to recommend to Christian viewers and should be considered with great caution and contemplation. As a film The Green Knight is not interested in yielding its secrets. It is also a slow burn with an often discordant soundtrack which some viewers may find off-putting. Those wishing to watch a less ominous, campier filmic version of the poem starring Sean Connery as the Green Knight should check out Stephen Weeks' Sword of the Valiant (1984).   

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran; Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGieseCheck out our Movie Review Index!

[1] Lowery is no stranger to myth his first feature film Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) is a modern retelling of Homer's ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey.
[2] It’s possible the fox may simply be an aspect of Gawain himself. Foxes are skittish yet considered crafty and clever. The third day in the exchange-of-winnings game Lord Bertilak has caught the fox that has been accompanying Gawain and in the same conversation, after letting the fox out of the bag, Bertilak plays his hand letting Gawain know he has caught Gawain in his indiscretion with his wife lady Bertilak. In his estimation Gawain has been a fox in Bertilak’s hen house.   

This review also available at The Canadian Lutheran online.