CAST: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Barry Keoghan, Ralph Ineson, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Erin Kellyman, Sarita Choudhury
RUNNING TIME: 130 mins
BASICALLY…: Sir Gawain (Patel), the cowardly nephew of King Arthur (Harris), must go on a quest to confront the mysterious Green Knight (Ineson)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
It’s astonishing how close The Green Knight was to becoming this year’s Annihilation. Like Alex Garland’s equally-grand sci-fi thriller, writer-director David Lowery’s Arthurian epic was set for a purely theatrical release in Britain, but all of a sudden the film was pulled by its UK distributors (though here, it wasn’t a case of producers playing tug-of-war like with Annihilation, but more so the rising cases of the Delta variant). For a while, us Brits could only look on in envy as other countries received the film in all its glory, while rumours started spreading that it was headed directly to a streaming service which, for a film that absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen, would have been such a serious blow to impatient British audiences.
Thankfully, it’s now out as a hybrid day-and-date release in both cinemas and on Amazon Prime Video, but again if you have the option between the two, try and see The Green Knight the way it was always meant to be seen (hint: not at home on a much smaller TV). You will not regret it, for not only is this film a truly cinematic experience, but it serves as a firm reminder as to why the big screen is the best way to watch movies in general.
Lowery’s film is an adaptation of the famed 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which here introduces us to young Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) who spends most of his time drinking and fooling around with his common lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) in a brothel. One Christmas, Gawain, Arthur and the other Knights of the Round Table are visited by a mysterious woodland figure known as the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who invites one of Arthur’s knights to participate in a game; they will strike a blow against the Green Knight, but one year hence they must travel to his woodland chapel and receive a similar blow in return. Gawain, in an attempt to prove himself, is the only one to take up the Green Knight’s challenge, and so as the next Christmas fast approaches he sets off on a quest across the land to meet his all-but-certain fate.
This is far from the romanticised King Arthur movie that Hollywood likes to peddle out every now and then; it is much more of an Arthurian epic that would have been made during the New Hollywood era, by ambitious filmmakers like John Boorman or Michael Cimino. Lowery, though, is keen to add his own flavour for dazzling spectacle, which he does with a stunning visual eye where practically every single frame feels like it belongs on that One Perfect Shot account on Twitter. The cinematography in this movie is outstanding, with DP Andrew Droz Palermo finding real beauty in this bleak and often haunting depiction of medieval England, where fog lurks around every corner, and hardly a glimpse of the sun amidst the overcast skies. Palermo’s bleak visuals, as well as a compelling musical score by Daniel Hart, help to create an atmosphere where it feels like a horror movie could happen at any moment, and it almost does in scenes where characters simply read a letter or ask to have their portrait done, which sound normal but are given such a tense visual framing and unsettling score that it wouldn’t be out of place if suddenly a movie like The Witch would unfold right there and then.
Lowery does such a grand job of making you feel every single aspect of this quest, as we follow a rather perfectly-cast Dev Patel on this very unpredictable journey where he could be ambushed by young thieves one moment, and then be diving into a lake to fetch the head of a ghost the next. It is such a tightly woven piece of cinematic storytelling that you are completely engrossed in every little detail it introduces, whether it’s setting up Gawain’s character, or having him come across a horde of naked giants on the move. The final ten or twenty minutes alone are as close to pure cinema as one can get in the modern age, invoking positive comparisons to classics like The Last Temptation of Christ, all set to well-chosen music cues, facial expressions, and of course the sheer power of the image to convey things that dialogue never could. Lowery is at the top of his game here, commanding every single moment with such confidence and ambition which you honestly don’t see a lot of in high-concept cinema nowadays. He has always been a fascinating director, with films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story and The Old Man & The Gun all showing his masterful ability to tell engrossing and emotional stories with the barest of tools, but with The Green Knight he displays a true love and understanding of what makes a historical, fantastical epic like the ones you’d find during the 60s and 70s not only work, but have true lasting power decades after their debut.
There is no doubt that time will also be extremely kind to this movie, for while it currently sits at a comfortable 88% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience rating is much more middling at 50%. From what I’ve read of general audiences’ reactions to this film, it seems that it’s the extended pacing and unconventional story beats that is turning people off, which is an understandable enough reason (though personally I was never bothered by any of that). However, one would argue that if The Green Knight were to please everyone, then it simply wouldn’t have done its job. It is meant to provoke and challenge the accepted vision of an Arthurian epic, where traditional chivalry and heroic worship is pushed far into the background and replaced with a much more challenging, mature sensibility that instils a creepily dour tone to a world that has often been shown as jovial and grand, whether we’re talking about John Boorman’s Excalibur or even Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
For that reason, The Green Knight stands out as the definitive Arthurian movie of the 21st century thus far, for its fearless devotion to repelling a status quo associated with the myth while also challenging general audiences who, regardless of their overall opinion for the movie, might want something different from the standard King Arthur movie. It helps that it’s also a fantastic movie which, once more, deserves to be seen in cinemas wherever possible.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Green Knight is an awe-inspiring Arthurian epic which, aside from being fantastically made and commanded by writer-director David Lowery, perfectly challenges the audience perception of such an epic with provocative visuals and an incredible grasp on traditional storytelling with new stylistic tricks. It is the grandest Arthurian movie in many years, and is easily one of the year’s best films.