Illustration by Ben Beechener
When I trundled down to the cinema to see director David Lowery’s The Green Knight, I knew only what I had seen from the trailers and that the reviews had been particularly polarising. Going into the film, my assumption as to why this was boiled down to one thing – the ambiguity of the narrative. Even from the trailers I could tell this would be far from a straightforward viewing experience and Lowery proved me right. This is not your standard fantasy fare, in which knights test their mettle in tightly choreographed swordfights or slay a dragon with barely a hair singed, instead being a more meandering and philosophical tale. However, on reflection, I think reducing criticism of the film to this stylistic choice does a disservice to those whose imaginations it failed to capture.
This occurred to me when I discussed the film with fellow English student Hetta, who has written the second half of this article. I would consider myself a big fan of fantasy fiction, but not to the same extent as Hetta, who is slowly making her way through the A Song of Ice and Fire novels as we speak, a task I fear I will never complete as they taunt me from my bookcase. In general, our tastes in the genre are fairly similar and we have both become accustomed to the more philosophical style of writing common in the Medieval era, from which the source material of this film – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – emerged, over the course of our English degree. Yet, in spite of agreeing that the cinematography was excellent, Hetta hated the film and I loved it. How could two fantasy fans who are both used to slower-paced, Medieval storytelling have such opposing reactions to the same film? All that can be done to answer this question is for me to give my side and Hetta to give hers.
Probably the most striking aspect of the film is its cinematography. Lowery’s surreal vision of the world that the protagonist, Gawain, inhabits manages to be both breath-taking and unsettling throughout, as he presents the viewer with beautifully haunting images that linger in the mind long after the credits roll, the meanings of which remain elusive. The colour pallet is used to great effect, beginning with the washed-out greys you would typically find in a gritty, modern crime-drama before shifting to vibrant, almost garish colours when Gawain has embarked upon his quest and the film’s fantasy elements become more pronounced. The costumes should also not be overlooked, particularly that of the eponymous Green Knight, who looks like he is slowly transforming into a part of nature. They complement the cinematography perfectly and make the whole film a visual feast.
It almost goes without saying that Dev Patel’s performance is superb. He perfectly displays the sense of confusion we too feel as the viewer, when he is faced with the dreamlike images Lowery creates. He also never feels like a typical knight, capturing an underlying sense of weakness in his performance that helps to explain Gawain’s motivations leading up to the final act, thereby lending his character the ability to stand out among the scores of other heroes in the genre.
Accompanying Patel and the visual elements is versatile score by Daniel Hart, which oozes atmosphere without ever being a distraction. The music jumps from being barely noticeable to overpowering depending on what the current scene requires, heightening the eeriness at the heart of the film. While it may not be a soundtrack you rush to revisit on Spotify, its contribution to the mood of the piece cannot be overstated.
I will admit that the film is noticeably slow, though that never detracted from my viewing experience. One of the first sequences is a fixed shot of a small farmyard, which lasts for over a minute and is only broken by brief flashes of the opening titles. It contributes nothing to the plot, but establishes the tone so well that I was riveted before the shot had ended. The Green Knight may not be for everyone, but it certainly engaged me enough to want to go and read the poem it is based on as soon as I can.
Enter, the pessimist. As much as I wish I was here to join in Joe’s praise of The Green Knight, the film fell sorely flat for me. Having read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the height of lockdown, my excitement for its adaptation was almost palpable. A24! Dev Petal as Gawain! What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, a lot of things. The odd thing about the disappointment I felt come the end credits of The Green Knight—aside from mine and Joe’s usually similar tastes and wildly differing opinions on this particular film—is that I agree with many of his points. The cinematography is indeed striking, Dev Petal is a phenomenal casting choice for Gawain and delivers a stellar performance in his role. Yes, the film is slow, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than that and leans into this from the very opening scene.
However, as visually stunning and well-acted as it is, The Green Knight cannot escape the fact that, as the age-old adage goes, ‘the book was better’. The slow pace of the film would be fine (ignoring how it grates jarringly with the cacophonous score that eventually gives one the sense of actually going mad) had there been a satisfying conclusion. But there is no pay off for the slow, meandering ‘quest’ Gawain embarks on, making the film seem like hard work (which says a lot considering all I was doing was sprawling in front of a screen and stuffing my mouth with popcorn). Does Gawain undergo any meaningful development? Right at the end. Is it enough? No. When the characterisation of Gawain departs so far from the Gawain of the poem (even movie Gawain’s name is pronounced differently) that he may as well be a different character entirely, the development is crucial and what is given is lacklustre at best. Unfortunately for the film and for me, it cannot be forgotten by the beautiful shots of sprawling landscapes and fleeting encounters with strange and sometimes mythical creatures. Ultimately, the aforementioned are all rendered arbitrary, resulting in a vague sense of bafflement and disappointment that persists for the entire duration of the film. Even the encounter that is fundamental to the epic poem’s clever conclusion is forsaken in this adaptation in favour of an overlong vision of Gawain’s future, leaving the satisfaction that comes with finishing the book sorely devoid upon finishing the film. One wonders, when the source material is so rich, what was this all for? Call me a book-purist if you wish, but I watched this in the company of those without the bias of having read the Medieval epic and, still, the sense of something big lacking was not just my own.
Does art or film need to have a point? No, ordinarily I do not believe so. Not everything produced by Hollywood is meant to have a profound message. But The Green Knight is a film that clearly thinks it does, and, when adapting from a poem so rich in history and overflowing with subtext, it should. However, its attempts to modernise only succeed in leaving the film as a shell of what it could have been.
So what can we take away from this discussion? Is Hetta’s disappointment completely understandable for those who have read the book? Quite possibly. Would I see the film in an entirely different light if I had read it before myself? Quite probably. But I think the most important thing to take note of is how much more interesting discourse around a film becomes when it is this divisive. When two people with such similar tastes in fantasy have such drastically different views on The Green Knight, surely the idea of watching it becomes even more enticing.