The Green Knight
A few weeks ago, film critics on my twitter feed were united with derision at an article on ScreenRant. Or really, at the article's headline and subhed—"The Green Knight Used The Same Smart Tactic As Marvel's Disney+ Shows: The Green Knight follows in the footsteps of Marvel's Disney+ shows, which all centered characters that didn't get their due in the MCU films." The clickbaity angle garnered a lot of predictable responses—"I'm begging you people to watch another movie", "not everything has to be a franchise!", "dude, do you even know Arthuriana?"—but even before watching The Green Knight, it seemed to me that most of these were missing the point. Yes, the comparison between indie filmmaker David Lowery's low budget, art-house adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to something like WandaVision or Loki is ridiculous. But mainly because those shows had a foundation of thirteen years, twenty-some movies, and billions of dollars to rest on, whereas Hollywood has been trying to make a successful franchise out of the Arthurian myths (and more generally, out of medieval folktales such as Robin Hood) for decades, most of which have been met with a shrug. And while it's true that Gawain is a major round table figure, that's only to a relatively small subset of the audience—for everyone else, Arthuriana begins and ends with Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Merlin (at a stretch, Morgana and Mordred). If you want to compare The Green Knight to an MCU story (and to be clear, I agree that that's not a particularly fruitful comparison), the correct point of reference isn't WandaVision; it's Iron Man.
And yet The Green Knight has succeeded where efforts from the likes of Ridley Scott and Guy Ritchie have failed. Financially—though, to be fair, what counts as a successful box office take for a movie like this would be a horrifying failure for previous Hollywood versions of the Arthurian legends—but also in terms of reviews, awards buzz, and fannish affection. Even before the film's long-delayed release, it has felt like a movie that everyone was rooting for and anticipating—there's a James Bond movie that has been sitting in the can for eighteen months that hasn't garnered this much breathless excitement. It's worth talking about what Lowery got right that previous cinematic approaches to Arthuriana, and other medieval sources, have missed. Not because there's a recipe for a potential franchise there, but because it can tell us a lot about what Hollywood usually misses when it tries to adapt these stories for a modern audience.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century romance of knightly virtue. The Christmas feast of King Arthur and his knights is interrupted by the green knight, who offers a challenge: one of the knights will face him and try to land a blow on him. If he succeeds, he will present himself in one year at the green chapel, to receive the same blow from the green knight. Gawain accepts the challenge, and lops off the green knight's head—after which the knight picks it up, and promises to meet Gawain at the appointed time. A year later, in search of the green chapel, Gawain comes across the castle of a lord and his lady. While the lord is out hunting, the lady tries to seduce Gawain. He resists her attractions, but receives from her a green sash which she promises will protect him from any harm. When Gawain arrives at the chapel, he kneels to receive the killing blow. But instead the green knight gives him only a slight nick. He reveals that he is the lord, who has been under an enchantment by the lady (who is actually Morgan le Fay), and that Gawain's virtuous behavior—his faithfulness, his chastity, his courage—have broken the spell.
Unsurprisingly, The Green Knight's project is to subvert these ideas about knightliness and chivalry. But it is very interesting to examine how it goes about doing so. Most cinematic Arthuriana tries to be subversive, usually by imagining its heroes as thoroughly modern Hollywood protagonists—reckless, ironic, quippy, cool, possessed of just the right progressive politics (in a thoroughly non-threatening way, of course), and usually haunted by one of the three or four emotional traumas that heroes are allowed to experience (daddy issues, lack of confidence in their own abilities, etc.). Sometimes this works (well, once). Most of the time, it loses the flavor of these legends, which are weird and rambling and often have a disturbing, quasi-erotic, quasi-religious charge. Lowery seems determined to embrace these very qualities—as seen, first and foremost, in the film's visuals.
The Green Knight is a film of color, of shadow and light. Green, of course, dominates in the film, either in verdant natural landscapes, or, in indoor scenes, as a signifier of unwholesomeness. But there is also the rich mustard of Gawain's cloak, or the chilly blue of Arthur's court. The film's set dressing and costume design play subtle, disorienting games with the audience's expectations. Its opening takes place in a medieval city that fits our preconceptions of how such a place should look (though as Samira Nadkarni points out, our expectations of worn and pitted stone—the scenes were shot in Cahir Castle—are ahistorical, as these castles would have looked less damaged a thousand years ago). But into this setting, Lowery inserts a hint of wrongness, an off-center, lumpen-looking tower where Gawain's mother, Morgause (Sarita Choudhury), casts the spell that summons the green knight. Arthur's throne room combines the historical with set dressing that recalls modern minimalism, the round table resembling nothing so much as a high tech conference table. And when Gawain arrives at the lord and lady's castle, there's a sudden, unexplained and almost unremarked-upon shift in the film's era, with the interior design suddenly leaping forward by centuries (these scenes were shot in Charleville Castle, a 17th century edifice). In almost every frame and with almost every visual choice, Lowery seeks to destabilize and disorient, to avoid the linear progression of the heroic narrative that the audience expects, and teach us instead to look for wrongness.
Nowhere is that wrongness more apparent than in Gawain himself, a character who, despite the title of the poem on which the film is based (a title that the film acknowledges in its opening credits, displaying it in several different fonts as a reminder that this story has been told and retold many times), is not a knight, nor really on the path to becoming one. We first meet him waking up in a brothel, in the bed of his mistress, Essel (Alicia Vikander). That evening, as he attends court for a Christmas feast, he's invited to sit beside the king and queen (Sean Harris and Kate Dickie), who are here depicted as aged and well past their days of glory. The king (except for Gawain, none of the famous Arthurian figures are identified by name) apologizes for not having tried to get to know him before now. It's clearly on his mind that his days are numbered, and that Gawain, his sister's son, is his obvious heir. He asks for a story about Gawain, to which the younger man answers that he doesn't have one. This is the context in which the green knight's (Ralph Ineson) challenge is received, and Gawain's (nervous, almost shaky) acceptance of that challenge is clearly a response to this just-concluded and unsatisfactory exchange. After the knight is slain, Gawain becomes a folk hero, possessed of sudden renown. But instead of burnishing his reputation at court, he spends the year before his appointment carousing in pubs. And yet neither is he fully in rebellion against the life expected of him: when Essel asks him to marry her, his answer is only silence.
In other words, this is Gawain as Prince Hal. Gawain as Hamlet. Given that it's his own mother who has sent him on this adventure, presumably in order to establish his credentials as heir apparent, he might also be Gawain as Macbeth or Titus Andronicus. Lowery has modernized the character, but only in the sense that Shakespeare is often credited with writing the first modern characters in literature, people riddled with self-doubt and depression, uncertain whether they actually want the fate that has been ordained for them by birth and circumstance, but also not willing to rebel against it.
The result is one that the audience will recognize, but also feel alienated by. It's notable, for example, that Gawain has no genre reading protocols, something that has become almost de rigueur in Hollywood's depictions of the fantasized past. After Gawain accepts his challenge, the green knight lays down his weapon and bares his neck. Even those in the audience with no knowledge of the original story will know a trap when they see it, but Gawain doesn't (something that has already given birth to several jokey memes). And yet when he tries to act like the protagonist in a story, Gawain falls flat. On his way to the green chapel, he takes shelter in the shrine of St. Winifred, a woman whose head was cut off by a man who tried to rape her. Winifred's ghost (Erin Kellyman) appears to Gawain and asks him to retrieve her head from a nearby spring. Clearly trying to apply storybook logic, Gawain asks what reward she will give him for the head. Winifred reacts in horror: "why would you ask me that? Why would you ever ask me that?"
Dev Patel is simply perfect casting for a role like this. Perhaps more than any other actor of his age, he exudes knightliness. His open face, his elegant gestures, his honeyed voice—and also the roles he's chosen—all combine to create the impression of a gentleman, a prince in disguise. It is repeatedly wrongfooting when his Gawain turns out to be so much less than the man we—and the people around him—take him to be. He's not a bad person, but neither is he a particularly good one, and when he does the right thing—including, of course, setting out to keep his appointment with the green knight—it's usually because he's been pushed and prodded into it. What he mostly is is self-absorbed, consumed with his own anxieties and fears, with the version of himself that he wants to embody—and it is that very self-absorption that prevents him from becoming that person.
Another way in which The Green Knight defies the expectations of its type of story is that Gawain doesn't really grow. After he's persuaded to set out for the green chapel, Gawain ends up on a hallucinatory, episodic journey across a landscape that seems disconnected in space and time. He gets directions from a scavenger who is rooting through a battlefield (Barry Keoghan)—though neither the boy nor Gawain seem clear on which battle this was (other reviewers have identified it as the Battle of Badon, a major Arthurian triumph, but of course this would have happened well in the past of the film's story). When Gawain fails to be sufficiently appreciative of this assistance, the scavenger lays ambush to him with some robbers and steals his horse, armor, and weapons. He takes shelter at the shrine of St. Winifred, where as already noted he falls short of expected chivalrous behavior. He's befriended by a fox. He meets some giants (by far the film's strangest and most disorienting image; giants abound in British folklore, but these figures—naked, bald, voiceless, and grey-skinned—are not them but something entirely different). Because we've seen stories like this before, we expect this journey to be one of growth and self-discovery. And yet Gawain remains fixed in his disappointing ordinariness. This has the effect of making this portion of the film feel longer and more aimless than it actually is, the lack of emotional progress making the audience feel as lost as Gawain.
What it's all about, ultimately, is death. Several times over the course of the film, Gawain imagines his own death, though Lowery shoots these musings with so little distinction from the film's actual events that it can take a while to realize what they actually are. When Gawain faces off against the green knight, the camera momentarily shows us red blood pooling across the flagstones, before any blow has been struck. When Gawain is attacked by the robbers, they truss him up and leave him beneath a tree. The camera pans away from Gawain and then back to him, in a slow circle. When it returns, he is a desiccated skeleton. Then it circles again to reveal the still-living man, struggling furiously to avoid that fate. At the end of the film, Gawain imagines his life after returning from the green chapel—being knighted, inheriting the crown, making a politically advantageous match, and then his own, eventual death. But these events are presented so realistically that it's a shock when the film flashes back to the present, and we realize that they weren't, in fact, happening in real life. Gawain, the film is telling us, is terrified of death. But he's also terrified of living, of the long stretch of compromises and atrocities (the future he imagines includes leaving Essel behind, while also taking their son from her) that will make up the life he's been destined for.
In the Arthurian legends, as in many other pre-modern stories, what's meant to assuage these fears is religion, the promise of an afterlife and of a reliable guide to correct behavior in this one. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a deeply Christian fable, but modern retellings of it and other medieval folktales tend to leave out their religious weight. The Green Knight reintroduces it, in subtle and ambivalent ways. The film's first line of dialogue is "Christ is born!", though this is spoken ironically by Essel to Gawain, and seems to refer at least in part to his morning erection. The fact that the film's characters are all, nominally, faithful Christians (even if, unseen, you have witchcraft like Morgause's, and a tacit acceptance of beings like the green knight) is woven through the story, ever-present even if it isn't commented upon. And where the Arthurian legends use Christian faith to bolster their presentation of Arthur and his knights as uniquely virtuous and blessed, in Lowery's version of the story, this faith is intimately connected with violent expansion and rapaciousness. When Gawain leaves on his journey, he passes the king's men uprooting trees in the nearby fields. In his imagining of his future as king, it is the priests who take Essel's baby from her and give to him to raise—and, eventually, to die on the battlefield.
The Green Knight thus sets up an opposition, a sort of battle for Gawain's soul. On the one side there is Christian faith, which has taught Gawain to believe that there is a set path he can follow that will assure him honor, glory, and a good life—and which is actually a justification for the rapacious takeover of nature and the waste of lives on the battlefield, all ending in death. On the other side there is the green knight, representing nature. But this not the empowering, friendly nature of a lot of Hollywood faux-environmentalism. This nature is indifferent, impersonal, mindless. When Gawain arrives at the castle of the lord and lady (Joel Edgerton and, interestingly, Vikander again), they have a conversation about the significance of the knight's color. The lady reminds the two men that while green represents nature, it is also the color of rot and corruption, of what will happen to all their bodies eventually, when nature takes them back—and that nature, eventually, takes everything back.
So the choice being laid before Gawain is between human delusion and indifferent reality. Unlike other Hollywood stories that dabble in depictions of religion, here there is no attempt to maintain deniability or ambiguity—Santa Claus's sleigh isn't going to streak across the sky as a sort of wink to the audience. The film makes it very clear that, despite the existence of magic in its story, the Christian faith is just a delusion. There is no god, there is no afterlife. If Gawain has a character arc over the course of the movie, it is coming to understand this. "Is this really all there is?" he asks the green knight when they finally meet again. The knight shrugs, "what else ought there be?"
Gawain's journey to the green chapel is therefore a protracted engagement with the death drive, and a quarter-life-crisis reckoning with what it would mean to live. Does he want the life he imagines, with all its disappointments? Should he, as several characters advise him to do, walk away from his appointment and simply pretend to have done his duty? Does he have the courage to bare his neck and accept whatever happens next? In the original story, virtue is rewarded, not only with life, but implicitly, with a good life. It is how Gawain proves his worthiness to rule. In the film, Gawain, rattled by the vision he has had of his future, does one better than his literary counterpart, and removes the sash that is meant to protect him from harm. The film is ambivalent over whether this is an act of courage, the character finally overcoming the fear of death that has defined him, or whether it is a form of suicide (and whether there is, in the end, a difference between the two). It also conceals from us whether this action changes the canonical end of the story—the first time I watched The Green Knight, I was sure that it ended with Gawain's death; the second time, it seemed as if, as in the story, he would die only symbolically.
The ambiguity is drawn, I think, from the fact that like Gawain, we no longer know which would be the happy ending. The Green Knight is a thoroughly anti-heroic retelling of its story (which is yet another reason why it's ridiculous to compare it to a Marvel TV show). It is perhaps this, more than any of its other subversions, that makes it so powerful, so disturbing, and so successful where other attempts at this source material have failed.