Review: ‘The Green Knight,’ starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris and Ralph Ineson

July 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dev Patel and Sean Harris in “The Green Knight” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Green Knight”

Directed by David Lowery

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unspecified ancient time in England, the fantasy horror film “The Green Knight” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Indians) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: King Arthur’s adventure-seeking nephew Gawain volunteers to take a life-threatening challenge from the Green Knight, and Gawain encounters many obstacles and temptations along the way.

Culture Audience: “The Green Knight” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an atmospheric and heady reimagining of the King Arthur legends.

Ralph Ineson (forefront) in “The Green Knight” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Green Knight” brings an unconventional horror spin on the King Arthur legends by putting more emphasis on the human mind and spirit experiencing terror rather than on elaborate and bloody physical battles. People who are expecting “The Green Knight” to be a fast-paced action film might be disappointed by the movie’s slow pacing. However, viewers who are patient enough to go on this “head trip” of a movie will find a lot to marvel and ponder in this cinematic retelling of ancient literature.

Written and directed by David Lowery (who has a tendency to make deliberately paced films with complicated protagonists), “The Green Knight” is told in chapters, with each chapter title appearing on the screen. “The Green Knight” is a filmed adaptation of an anonymously written chivalric romance called “Gawain and the Green Knight,” which was published in the 14th century. Do viewers have to know this story or any Arthurian legends before seeing “The Green Knight”? No, but it helps.

“The Green Knight” begins during a Christmas season and ends one year later. In the opening of the movie, rebellious and stubborn knight Gawain (played by Dev Patel) has spent the night before Christmas getting drunk and being with his lover Helen (played by Anais Rizzo), who is a commoner. When Gawain comes home, his nameless mother (played by Sarita Choudhury) asks Gawain where he was all night. Gawain lies and says that he was attending Mass. His mother, who smells the liquor on him, replies sarcastically, “Have you been drinking the sacrament all night?”

Gawain’s mother is the sister of the king (played by Sean Harris), who rules over the kingdom with his queen wife (played Kate Dickie). Although these ruling royals do not have names in this movie, all indications are that the king is the legendary King Arthur. Gawain might have lived a carefree lifestyle as the nephew of a king, but that will soon change in this story.

On Christmas Day, the king, queen, the Knights of the Round Table (including Gawain) and other assorted people have gathered for a formal court meeting. The king summons Gawain to sit beside him on the throne and remarks that it’s the first time that he’s given this privileged invitation to Gawain. The king asks that Gawain give him a very specific Christmas gift: Gawain must tell a tale about himself.

No sooner does the king make this request when the Green Knight (played by Ralph Ineson) appears on horseback in the court. In this movie, the Green Knight doesn’t look completely human, but more like a cross between a human and a tree. The Green Knight, who tests the characters of men, has arrived to deliver a challenge.

The written message that the Green Knight delivers upon his arrival is read by the queen, and the voice that comes out of her mouth is a deep and eerie man’s voice, as if the Green Knight is reading it himself. It’s one of many spooky touches to the film that Lowery adds to ensure that viewers know that this isn’t a typical knight movie. Get used to seeing a lot of cinematography drenched in mist when watching “The Green Knight.”

The Green Knight’s challenge is simple but one that would strike fear in the heart of the average person. The Green Knight dares any knight to behead the Green Knight. And in return, the Green Knight will behead his killer exactly one year later, at the Green Knight’s Green Chapel. Gawain is the only person to voluntarily step forward and accept this challenge.

Why would anyone take this dare? The king whispers to Gawain, “Remember it’s only a game,” as he gives Gawain a sword to use for the beheading. The Green Knight lays down his axe in a sign of surrender. Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who gets up, picks up his own head, and then chuckles, “One year hence,” as he gallops away on his horse, leaving his axe behind.

The movie then fast-forwards to nearly a year later. Gawain is on a mission to find the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, where they agreed to meet for the promised beheading. Along the way, Gawain encounters various dangers and complications that could impede his journey. And all the while, viewers (even those who’ve read the book) will be wondering if Gawain really will be beheaded, or if his life will be spared if he sees the Green Knight again.

Gawain meets several new people in his travels, including a thieving, nameless scavenger (played by Barry Keoghan); a red-haired trauma victim in a long white nightgown named Winifred (played by Erin Kellyman); and a gregarious unnamed lord (played by Joel Edgerton) and his seductive wife Essel (played by Alicia Vikander), also described in the film credits as The Lay. An intelligent red fox ends up accompanying Gawain and becomes his companion for part of his trek.

The lord and his lady live in a castle with a mute, unnamed elderly woman, who is always blindfolded. (No explanation is given on who this woman is, and Gawain doesn’t ask.) The couple invites Gawain to spend the night in their home on December 21, just a few days before Gawain is supposed to make the Christmas deadline to meet up with the Green Knight. What happens in the home is a turning point in the movie, which makes some big changes from the original source material.

“The Green Knight” takes admirable risks in not following the conventional tropes found in movies about a knight on an adventure. There are no massive battleground scenes, no damsel in distress who’s the knight’s love interest, no kingdom whose leadership is in jeopardy. And although “The Green Knight” has many elements of a horror movie (including some bloody gore), the real fear in this movie is Gawain’s dread of holding up his end of the bargain. His integrity is at stake, as well as his life.

The movie has some strikingly haunting visuals that are times psychedelic. In a memorable sequence, Gawain encounters giant nude, androgynous people (who are the size of skyscrapers) while trying to find the Green Chapel. Gawain tries to talk to one of these giant people as they walk past him, but communication is difficult, and they can’t really understand each other. It’s a very hallucinogenic and effective scene.

“The Green Knight” also doesn’t shy away from references to brutality toward women, in an era where women were treated like property. When Gawain first meets Winifred, she mentions that a lord tried to rape her and beheaded her when she resisted. Gawain is initially confused because Winifred looks like a person who is alive, not a ghost. However, the way Winifred manifests herself in this story—whether she’s alive, dead or somewhere in between—is on her own terms, as if she’s taken back the power that was stolen from her.

Patel’s depiction of Gawain is as a flawed but well-intentioned hero. It’s an understated role where he rises to the occasion of expressing a wide range of emotions without distracting melodrama and while still portraying a character who must present a stoic demeanor to strangers. The other characters in “The Green Knight” are somewhat two-dimensional and/or have very limited screen time.

However, Edgerton’s portrayal of the lord and Vikander’s portrayal of his wife Essel are intriguing and make enough of an impact to suggest that this couple could easily have an entire movie about their lives together. But make no mistake: The humanity of “The Green Knight” resonates mostly because of Patel’s layered performance, which never lets viewers forget that Gawain is a human being who can falter, not as an unrealistic knight who will always put fear aside to rise to the occasion.

Some of the visuals in “The Green Knight” have themes of Christianity versus paganism, or humans versus the environment. Although there’s violence in the movie, it’s not gratuitous. Lowery is the type of filmmaker who takes his time in immersing viewers in the movie’s unique atmosphere instead of rushing from scene to scene and dialogue to dialogue. And there are no gimmicky jump scares.

Many other horror stories rely on the premise that murder victims don’t know when they’re going to die. “The Green Knight” skillfully presents a different type of horror: Someone who volunteered to die at a pre-determined date. Gawain spends most of this treacherous journey by himself, as he reflects on his own mortality, as well as his own morality.

In its clever way, “The Green Knight” is an artistically creative statement of how it’s human nature for people not to want to think about their own deaths. People who have to confront their own deaths usually have to face another fear: reflecting on their lives and holding themselves accountable for their misdeeds and mistakes.

A24 will release “The Green Knight” in U.S. cinemas on July 30, 2021.