The Green Knight (2021) | Film Review
by Ask Vestergaard
The Green Knight is so many things.
It is a loose adaptation of the 14th century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – one that embraces the themes of its source material, only to lovingly-but-bitingly subvert them. It is David Lowery’s most personal directorial feature yet: an anxious coming-of-age story about a mother pushing her lazy son away from home. It is one amongst hundreds of films dealing with the knights of Camelot, but is also the first woozy foray into Arthurian psychedelia since John Boorman’s bonkers and surreal Excalibur from 1981.
It is a fantasy. It is a tragedy. It is a romance, a visual poem, an unabashed existential crisis. And it is stunningly beautiful.
Andrew Droz Palermo returns as cinematographer after shooting Lowery’s achingly melancholic A Ghost Story, and his work here leaves every frame as ethereal and haunting as stained glass. Malgosia Turzanska’s work with costume design feels, for lack of a better word, holy. Gowns and mail are infused with just the right amount of anachronism to make them simultaneously believable and unearthly – in particular, the crowns with in-built halos are a highlight. And then there are the sounds. Daniel Hart’s score is a disturbed cacophony of strings and flutes and operatic Old English wails that makes the heart soar one moment and halts it with unease the next. The music is accented by sound design that somehow gives noise texture: wax seals are broken with meaty snaps and forest gods seem to move with the crashing of falling trees.
The Green Knight is a poignant exploration of what it means to be great, and what it means to be good. It is a meditation and deconstruction of chivalric values that constantly lets its ungrateful, greedy, cowardly, and wonderfully human protagonist fail to achieve the standards he has set for himself due to a toxic culture of heroism. It is a story about nepotism and the grooming of good people destined to enable despotic institutions. It is episodic, eschewing a three-act structure for a more anthological approach akin to the poem from which it draws its inspiration, as it follows its hero from trial to loosely connected trial. And it is a veritable menagerie of fantastical beings: witches, wizards, whispering foxes, giants who sing like whales, a headless ghost, and a knight with bark for skin. It is also kinda gay – it has received some fascinating criticism for downplaying the homoerotic subtext that some medieval scholars have argued is core to the original poem, but that doesn’t make a certain kiss halfway through any less breathtaking.
The Green Knight is an environmental treatise that pits ephemeral humanity against the eternity of nature. It is a reflection on the nature of stories, adaptation, and fanfiction. It is a film that doesn’t have superheroes but somehow still has a post-credits scene.
And it is a bloody good movie. Go watch it.