MOVIE REVIEW: THE GREEN KNIGHT is one of the year’s best character journeys on film.


Director David Lowery delivers a lush and visually sumptuous Arthurian fantasy epic with some of 2021’s most compelling on-screen performances.

It’s been almost two decades since I got my degree in English literature, but far and away one of the most compelling pieces I remember reading in my studies was the epic poem of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Its authorship is anonymous, but it details the code of chivalry that a knight in service should aspire to. Today, the meaning of chivalry is something akin to being courteous and respectful when on a date. In Arthurian times, chivalry was akin to something like bushido was to the Japanese warrior class in the times of the samurai. Chivalry was a code of conduct and ethics; courage, courtesy, justice, and a requirement to help the weak. A true knight aspired to these goals in their everyday life and to violate this code was to disregard their lord and to throw away the honor in their role and service.

Director David Lowery’s adaptation of this poem, The Green Knight, is a deep elegy; not only to the conceit of the role of chivalry in knighthood but to the Gawain of the tale, here played masterfully by Dev Patel. The Green Knight is not only a reflection on the life he lived prior to his service, but to the life he could’ve lived had his life been not so defined by this rigorous code. In some respects, it is not so dissimilar to Lowery’s previous film A Ghost Story, which examines a simple man’s life, both with and without him and its place in the larger scheme of existence. The difference is, in this film, Lowery manages to craft a film that seems more accessible and universal in its message through his strong direction and the loving and compelling performances within it.

Patel plays Gawain, a nephew of the unnamed Arthurian King (Sean Harris) of his court. While Gawain is a knight of his round table, the King regrets not taking a stronger role in his upbringing, as he is his own nephew. He asks Gawain to tell him a tale that he might know him. But Gawain has no tales. In many ways, he is a simple man. He carries on a loving relationship with a prostitute in a brothel not far from the castle, Essel, played by Alicia Vikander. She cares for him, while his feelings for her are nebulous. He loves her, but her lot in the social caste means they can never really be. His mother (Sarita Choudhury) whose presence alludes to the Weird Sisters of Fate of Arthurian legend, seems to conjure an opportunity for Gawain to make his fame. Her actions lead to a visit from an inhuman Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) on Christmas morn, who challenges a knight of the round table to a beheading game. In this game, he challenges someone to strike him in exchange for his blade; the caveat being the Green Knight must be afforded an opportunity a year hence to return the blow, strike for strike. Gawain answers, and in a pique of braggadocio, takes the Green Knight’s head, thinking he’s ended it. The surprise comes when the Green Knight reclaims his head and bids Gawain to visit him at his Green Chapel next Christmas in a year so the Knight may return the blow to his head.

From here, the year flows quickly and Gawain takes his leave to answer the challenge in order to abide by his chivalric code; lest he loses his honor and reputation as a knight. It’s an interesting angle to explore on film, as examples of a samurai obeying bushido to his personal detriment are many, from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. However, films exploring the difficulties of maintaining a chivalric code are scarce. Here, Lowery’s great weapon in exploring this difficulty is Patel’s expressive face and pathos; he’s a man who doesn’t want to die and who is presented with numerous examples to escape his fate while losing his honor. From scavengers to thwart his journey, to spirits whose causes he could escape, to a lord who provides him shelter and pleasure, down to a mysterious doppelganger of his heart’s longing who would have standing in his system if he violated his love for her original. The fantasy elements work hand in hand with the personal story; much the way some other A24 fare like Midsommar does and it stands at the high end of those productions from the studio. The performances from Patel and Vikander are enthralling, as well as those in smaller roles like Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Erin Kellyman (Solo: A Star Wars Tale) that are pivotal in the film to Gawain’s personal journey.

The Green Knight is one of the year’s best films, with amazing cinematography and production design. It hosts awards caliber performances throughout and demands rewatches to sink in the levels of symbolism and meaning hidden in its depths. Its methodical pacing may not be for everyone and its stance as a character journey and elegy reminds one of No Country for Old Men in its exploration of the journey versus the destination. But it holds great rewards for those seeking this kind of dive into personal codes and honor at the cost of the self. 5/5