Gawain, King Arthur’s headstrong nephew, embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic stranger and tester of men.
The Green Knight is about the making of legends, though by the end it looks very much as if a chivalric knight is just a sacrificial victim. It’s certainly relevant to us now, heroes as celebrities who don’t even own their own story.
Within David Lowery’s film there is constant tension between the reality of magic, and storytellers who see it is an embellishment to make a hero’s quest more interesting — with The Green Knight itself part of its own exploration into myths and how they grow and sustain themselves. This is, after all, another retelling of the story of the legendary Sir Gawain.
Camelot is pristine but dying, with the ageing Arthur and Guinevere sitting glumly with their greying knights. The king is (nearly) dead, long live the King! The place may still be run on near-equal lines — Arthur is at pains to point out how his knights have fought to make his kingdom what it is — but this is a modern, Christian stronghold that needs fresh blood to stop it being overrun by nature and old magic from outside.
The Green Knight is summoned with a spell one Christmas by Gawain’s mother, a witch (Morgan Le Fay in the medieval chivalric romance, though simply listed as Mother here — Arthur and Guinevere are also credited as simply King and Queen). He appears at the great doors, challenging Arthur’s knights to a fight, with the proviso that whoever strikes a blow against him must then trek to his green chapel a year later and receive the same blow in return. The impetuous Gawain takes up the challenge — all the knights look the other way — and requests a sword. Arthur (Sean Harris) hands him Excalibur and already a new legend is born.
They get fresh blood of a kind when Gawain (a compelling Dev Patel) lops off the Green Knight’s head, and the young man clearly thinks he has done enough to secure his own hero origins story; while behind him the headless knight stands up, picks up his head and chuckles “it’s just a flesh wound!” Okay I made that last bit up, not all legends are ancient; he actually reminds Gawain of their agreement before clattering away on his horse, clutching his head. Over the next year Gawain’s stature grows even as the deadline looms, until the King himself intervenes and basically tells his nephew he has to go.
Gawain of Green Girdles we could call this, after two women make one for him, woven with charms to keep him safe on his quest. One is from his mother — she could’ve just not summoned the Green Knight, but we are where we are.
Despite his journey, even after 130 minutes Gawain questions what is demanded of him, asking if this is all there is, just before he finally accepts the mantle of Generic Legendary Hero. Overall The Green Knight left me sated by its beauty and performances, and hollow at what it might be advocating and our complicity, as the layers of what makes a myth are pulled back.
Nature and magic are connected here, part of the old ways. Outside Camelot the world is wild, though nearer to the green chapel the strength of magic increases — the now richly coloured forests are bathed in golden light and even the country’s semi-magical inhabitants are confused, with one lamenting “I see things everywhere that bear no logic!”
Yet as he embarks on his quest, Gawain is overtaken by his own fast-growing myth, as legends sprout and are nurtured by those around him. His portrait is painted, he’s recognised in taverns, he’s even the subject of a Punch and Judy show. The beautiful Lady (Alicia Vikander) admits to embellishing the overheard stories she writes down for posterity, which reinforces the idea that magic is creative licence added to minstrels’ songs and monks’ manuscripts to make them more interesting, fantastical details that keep them alive.
Patel is riveting throughout, as Gawain becomes trapped in his own story. His elders manipulate his early hot-headed decision and propel him towards the construction of the heroic Sir Gawain. They pull his strings: Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) pointing out he has no stories to tell “yet” and must not take his place among knights “idly”; King Arthur reminding him of his duty; his mother (Sarita Choudhury) responsible for summoning the Green Knight in the first place.
Legends bump up against each other. As he treks through a battlefield of dead bodies, he meets a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who talks of a king single-handedly killing nearly a thousand men; later a medieval royal bride looks like the Tudor Elizabeth I.
It should be messy but it isn’t, this squishing together of myths and magic. The Green Knight is a true epic that doesn’t minimise itself in favour of an easy watch. And despite this tangle, these are simpler times when you must face your responsibilities, no matter how horrific. The ending is ambiguous, playing into the many different versions of every myth. With old stories, their continued existence justifies their existence.
I watched The Green Knight on Amazon Prime; It would be stunning on the big screen but it works beautifully on TV too, with its castles, black outlines against a grey sky, and golden magic. And I could put the subtitles on, which gave me such gems as [laughing maniacally] followed by [continues laughing maniacally].
That’s the Green Knight himself, played by Ralph “Finchy” Ineson, though he looks like Groot played by Pierce Brosnan. A nature god pushed to the edges by modernity, he knows he will endure for eternity, not unlike Finchy himself (I know actors act, but Ineson is forever Finchy). Patel is superb, growing from aimless royal hanger-on living for carousing and fun, through his quest which will be the making of him but also probably destroy him.
Sean Harris is excellent as Arthur, quietly rueful and full of regret as he tries to befriend his nephew, but later not averse to pushing him into the role of hero to save his Camelot, his face etched and worn after a lifetime on the hamster wheel of chivalry. I adored too Erin Kellyman as the matter-of-fact Saint Winifred, a forest wraith looking for her head, living at a time when magic was indeed a matter of fact. (Lowery wrote as well as directed, and there are mesmerising monologues for Harris and Vikander, along with touches of dry humour.)
Anyway, back to quests. It’s not the destination but the folks, phantasms and very forward foxes we meet along the way, tripping us up with tests and warnings. Everyone tries to convince Gawain his journey is nearly at an end but it only gets longer. I tried not to think that he was just trudging through rural Wales, as obviously his journey will last as long as it takes him to truly become “Sir” Gawain.
Yet hanging over it is the sense that Gawain is a pawn, almost a figure in a simulation. Both the Green Knight and the Lord (Joel Egerton) call it a game. (The talking fox is surely another side of Gawain himself, pleading flight not fight, Gawain’s russet cloak the same shade as the animal.)
The Green Knight is a gorgeous film, becoming much more so as the magic gets stronger, with rich blues and golds. Even here though I felt we’d been co-opted into his fate. The better it gets for us, the worse for him.
It plays out like an elaborate riddle and a dark, dark comedy, poor Gawain directed to a path of heroic sacrifice while everyone else sleeps soundly in their beds. I still don’t know which is better, glory or obscurity. At one point, after Gawain is attacked and tied up, we see his skeleton on the ground, a reminder of how his story could have ended: his body undiscovered in a damp clearing, rather than immortalised in poetry that echoes down the centuries.
Note: there is a brief end credits scene.
Missed something in The Green Knight? Read my article The Green Knight: quests, tests and magic.
The Green Knight is in UK cinemas and on Amazon Prime now.
Watch the trailer for The Green Knight: