'The Green Knight' review
Spoilers for “The Green Knight.”
In the grand pantheon of stories that concern themselves with honor, chivalry, and sacrifice, the legends of King Arthur and his knights stand out. The Arthurian legends feature characters who test their loyalty and strength through various challenges where the hero goes on a journey and is fundamentally transformed. Of course, in recent years, many movies based on Arthurian legend have devolved into action schlock with horrific special effects. “The Green Knight” eschews all that for a beautiful, slow-paced, atmospheric, semi-erotic, contemporary update to the original poem on which it is based.
The poem itself, titled “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” details the story of King Arthur’s nephew and youngest knight, Gawain. The Green Knight challenges Arthur and his knights to deal one blow to him. Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight. After one year, Gawain has to make the journey to the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight will be waiting to deal the same blow to Gawain.
Gawain ventures across the land and is eventually welcomed by a lord, his lady, and an elderly lady who doesn’t speak. The lord proposes an exchange of winnings, promising Gawain that he will go hunting every day and will provide Gawain his entire hunting haul in exchange for whatever Gawain receives while staying at the castle. While Gawain is at the castle, the lord's lady seduces him, giving him kisses which Gawain then gives to the lord.
On the final day Gawain stays at the castle, the lord's lady gives Gawain a girdle that will prevent him from physical harm and instructs him to keep the gift secret from the lord. Gawain departs from the lord’s castle and heads to the Green Chapel. The Green Knight tests Gawain’s mettle, and the girdle protects Gawain from being beheaded. The Green Knight reveals himself to be the lord of the castle earlier. It turns out that Gawain was being tested by the elderly lady in the castle, who is a sorceress and Arthur’s stepsister. Though Gawain lied about having the girdle, the Green Knight doesn’t blame him for it and Gawain returns to Camelot having essentially failed the journey.
At its core, the story focuses on a man whose honor is fundamentally challenged and fails to uphold his virtue. But who would blame Gawain for protecting himself? After all, the blow in return from the Green Knight would have killed him. It is reasonable that even the most virtuous of knights would sacrifice their honor to protect themselves, especially when there is no benefit to being killed by the Green Knight. It’s a playful and interesting deconstruction of the traditional themes of honor, sacrifice, and chivalry that proves how futile those values are when faced with the reality of death.
The film adaptation takes the aforementioned themes and flips them on their head. The story generally plays out similarly, but with significant changes to Gawain’s character. Gawain is not a knight in the film adaptation; instead, he’s just the reckless nephew of the honorable King Arthur who spends his time in brothels and pubs. His mother summons the Green Knight to test her son’s honor and might, and Gawain recklessly beheads the Green Knight when none of the other knights wanted to.
The result of this is essentially a hero’s journey where the main character fails repeatedly. He can’t admit his love for the woman he is with. Within the first day, he loses his horse, armor, and sword to bandits. He falls sick eating psychedelic mushrooms. He flinches when he sees giants. When it comes to the sequence with the lord and the lady, he doesn’t even follow through on the “exchange of winnings” proposal, sexually engages with the lady, and takes the girdle to protect himself. Gawain’s character is fundamentally dishonorable, almost as if the film is portraying what it would be like if someone who isn’t a knight would depart on a journey meant to test their strength and honor.
The film’s end departs the most from the original poem. Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, and as the Green Knight gets ready to behead him, Gawain runs away. He returns to Camelot, where he is knighted and bears a son with the woman he loves only to leave her when he is eventually crowned king after Arthur’s death. Years later, his son dies in battle, Gawain becomes a hated king, and he dies when his castle is overrun in battle.
Just as the film seems like it is ending, it suddenly cuts back to Gawain in the Green Chapel. It’s a truly breathtaking sequence, and it was at this moment the film clicked for me. After the vision of his future, he removes the girdle and tells the Green Knight that he’s ready to face the final blow. The film ends ambiguously, unclear whether or not Gawain died.
While the poem showed how even virtuous and honorable individuals can crack under the fear of death, the film portrays an inverse relationship. Even the most dishonorable and weak-willed are capable of showing some virtue when faced with the consequences of their actions. It’s an excellent companion to the original poem, one that simultaneously respects and enhances the source material. Where the original poem is a playful deconstruction of the traditional themes of Arthurian legends, the film is a reaffirmation of those themes.
Of course, one does not need to be familiar with the poem to enjoy the film, though it may be a little harder to follow if you’re unfamiliar with the original material. It’s the type of film that demands your attention yet encourages you to soak in the atmosphere and feel the weight of Gawain's journey. It helps that lush visuals and a magnificent score accompanies the film, which elevates each sequence of the film’s carefully constructed tapestry.
This is not a film for everyone. It’s incredibly surreal, and a lot of the action that occurs will force the audience to put two and two together in order to figure out what is happening. That is what I love about this film, but not everyone will find that appealing. Regardless, this is a film I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, even those who may not enjoy it.