September 3, 2021 | LIFE | By Annie Knight | Illustration by Kira Schulist
The first (and last) time I read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the source material for David Lowery’s film “The Green Knight” was in high school English, and for good reason.
All I remember about the Artherian poem is this: a somewhat hard to read medieval poem (shout out to Middle English!) focusing on the enduring, but tiresome theme of male chivalry. It would probably disappoint my junior year English teacher (sorry Mrs. Schultz), but I found “Sir Gawain” unremarkable. Lowery’s adaptation did not change my opinion.
“The Green Knight” is the latest from indie darling A24 (“Hereditary,” “Uncut Gems,” “The Lighthouse”). The film follows young Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), a knight of the roundtable and King Arthur’s nephew. On Christmas in Camelot, King Arthur requests an entertaining tale. Cue the Green Knight. More tree than man, the Green Knight rides in and offers a challenge: strike a blow against him, but in one year’s time the same must be done to the knight.
Eager to prove himself, Gawain is the only knight brave enough to step up to the task. Gawain attempts to engage the knight in a sword fight; however, the Green Knight simply kneels, awaiting the blow.
Gawain, in true medieval fashion, beheads the Green Knight only to have him pick up his head and casually stroll out, reminding Gawain in particularly spooky baritone of his commitment in a year’s time.
Lowery’s Gawain is a bit more dishonorable than your typical, chivalrous knight. After his “heroic” defeat of the Green Knight, Gawain spends his days drinking in the tavern, having sex with his girlfriend, a local sex worker, and generally dreading his next meeting with the Green Knight after his unearned victory. While having the archetypal image of knighthood disrupted is fun, this was one of the only interesting elements “The Green Knight” added to the original poem.
More than anything, while watching “The Green Knight,” I found myself wondering why A24 decided to adapt the poem in the first place. It’s clear that Lowery had a lot of fun with its medieval setting. Fancy script, reminiscent of epic story books, mark the acts of the film.
Additionally, the prosthetic work done on the Green Knight himself was clearly well thought out and the equally thorough set design created an uncanny atmosphere. On the technical side, I appreciated the film’s attention to sound design, which established an unshakable eeriness throughout the movie. Cinematographically, the film had all of the wall shots I would expect from an A24 film, though I found myself, again, questioning their involvement altogether.
However, despite the high value production design, I found a part myself longing for the simpler sets and more dedicated character development which defined A24’s indie successes like “Ex Machina,” “Lady Bird,” and “Moonlight.” Due to such shallow development, Sir Gawain and his journey felt uninspiring. This weak emotional through-line was accompanied by lackluster challenges along Gawain’s hero’s journey. What should have been Lowery and A24’s time to creatively reshape the legend — since none of these challenges are named specifically in the poem — made for a painful movie experience. Don’t watch this film if you’re expecting an epic medieval fantasy on par with “Lord of the Rings.” This is not that.
Beyond diversifying this traditionally white story with the casting of Dev Patel as Sir Gawain and a few time-bending tricks thrown into the script on Lowery’s part, no other efforts to modernize the story convinced me that I should still care about Sir Gawain in 2021. I will probably end up doing the same thing with this movie that I did with the original poem: maybe talk about it with a friend after class for five minutes, then promptly forget about it.
You can see “The Green Knight” at Tinseltown in Colorado Springs or from the comfort of your couch on Amazon Prime or Apple TV.