“The Green Knight”, an adaptation of the anonymous Arthurian romance, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, should be characterized in the genre of “interesting failure”, although, giving credit, the “interesting” part didn’t kick in until after the film was over. Watching it, at least for most of the second half, was a snooze. To be fair, viewers familiar with the story may find it diverting to compare the film with its source.
Written and directed by David Lowery, it seems to be a retelling of the story from a blatantly feminist angle. It starts off familiarly enough, with a scruffy Dev Patel, as Sir Gawain, carousing around the court with his girlfriend, played by Alicia Vikander. He is awaiting a knighthood from his uncle, King Arthur, based mostly on his being the son of Morgan le Fay. But, as witches do, Morgan crafts a spell that is intended, eventually, to lead to her son’s knighthood
In open court, the king invites Gawain, as part of Christmas celebration, to sit beside him and Queen Gueneviere. But he also demands that Gawain do some glorious deed before being knighted. Then the spell kicks in: the court is startled by the appearance of the frightening, mysterious Green Knight, on horseback, who offers a challenge. If his opponent is able to strike a blow, he must agree to meet him again at his Green Chapel on Christmas, one year hence, to receive the same blow from him. Eager for glory, Gawain volunteers. Since he is not yet a knight, he has no sword, but the king lends him Excaliber.
Although Gawain survives the duel, the outcome is totally unexpected. After he cuts off the Green Knight’s head with his sword, the severed head speaks as if alive. Gloating, the Green Knight reminds the court of the agreement, and that he expects to deliver the same blow to Gawain the following Christmas. Then he rides off. To say the least, Gawain is terrified. But Arthur, reassuringly tells him it’s only a game.
Up until this point, the film doesn’t seem to be a radical transformation of the knights-in-armor genre. But once Gawain embarks on his journey to the Green Knight’s chapel, his adventures become increasingly peculiar, and take us into areas of philosophical, and blatantly sexual, themes that never seemed to arise when Alan Ladd rode his steed.
In sum, the rest of the story – such as it is – is a baffler, with a final line that seems to mock everything that happened before. I can see why a friend said he “hated” this movie. While I don’t quite agree, its problems are obvious. The score is meant to suggest mystery and danger, but is more often just silly. Worse is the gloomy photography, which makes it hard to read any expression on the actors’ faces. Patel starts off as playfully daring and sexy, but soon is deep into his “quest for greatness”, but with “honor”. Of the other actors, only Barry Keoghan makes an impression, as a sly young vagabond with secrets.
But there is an interesting core to this misfire. Gawain, although affectionate with his lady, is increasingly distrustful and uneasy around women. And it’s clear that the filmmakers think this fear is behind all of the traditions of chivalry. One awesome sequence focuses on this. Gawain chances upon a group of naked giants, all women, with their own language. Then they simply walk away into the mist. They never reappear, and have no function within the story. Unless, that is, they symbolize the eternal incompatibility of the sexes. Perhaps chivalry, the creation of men, was only meant to subjugate women, whose overpowering sexual desire and irresistible beauty were simply too terrifying for them.