The Green Knight (2021)

David Lowery | 2hr 5min

There many not be too many hardcore fans of Arthurian legends hoping that David Lowery’s adaptation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ remains faithful to its source material, but right up until the film’s final few minutes, this is surprisingly the case. It is no easy task maintaining secrecy around what exactly unfolds in this dénouement where the two stories part ways, especially given how much it represents the zenith of his stylistic and formal achievement of filmmaking, but this much can be said without risk of spoilers – his narrative’s eventual surrender to the creeping power of time and nature is far more in line with its pagan influences than its Christian.

The medieval kingdom of The Green Knight is built on fragile foundations of ego and pretence, with even its royal crowns radiating outwards like metallic imitations of iconographic halos. The sombre spirituality which can be found within these castle walls is not a bright beacon of faith, but is rather represented as a dark, deathly decay, pierced only by light pouring down from above like heavenly blessings. This is but a small taste of the transcendent, otherworldly power which Gawain will discover on his journey across the beautiful rolling landscapes of England, where encounters with scavengers, lords, and supernatural creatures gradually temper his ambitions of glory and honour. As he comes to grapple with the dark and mystical beauty of the world beyond King Arthur’s castle, so too does Lowery in his visual artistry, relishing the poetic fantasy and dreamlike imagery of such a grand, chivalric quest.

Handsome costuming, framing heads with saintly halos like those of medieval Christian icons.

There is a sizeable difference between the medieval world which Lowery constructs here versus those grittier representations of the era from more historically-minded films. This is a setting which seems to spring forth from the oral tales of ancestors, as a visual sense of delicate impressionism emerges from within every set piece. Matte paintings are used early on during the Round Table scenes, effectively turning its backdrop of gaping arched hallways into a canvas upon which Lowery stages his ensemble of knights and nobles. Later as Gawain approaches the end of his journey, a supernatural orange mist engulfs the final trek, as if to tempt him away from the inverse colours of the Green Chapel. Such evocative imagery rejects any perceptions of this narrative as a piece of pure history, but rather establishes it as a tale that has been pulled apart and reconstructed thousands of times over centuries, distilling its core down to a pure expression of humanity’s total insignificance.

Stunning images aren’t hard to find in The Green Knight. A mixture of superb staging and production design makes for perfection in Lowery’s mise-en-scéne.
Creativity in the camerawork and colour palette, making for such remarkable compositions that place Gawain at their centre.

The destiny which the young knight Gawain finds himself bound to comes not from religious prophecies, but is instead foolishly created by his own hand. “Tell me a tale of yourself, so that I might know thee,” King Arthur implores him at a Christmas feast, and yet unlike those other great men of the Round Table, he has none. As if summoned by this request, a man made entirely of bark and leaves rides into the dining hall. He offers a challenge: anyone who shall land a blow against him must have the exact same blow delivered back to them one year later. Tempted by the glory, and feeling the pressure to prove himself worthy, Gawain steps forward and beheads the Green Knight. It is a show of superficial strength, but also of foolish arrogance, as he thus sets in stone a fate which will see him reap what he has sown.

Given its lyrical musings, cryptic symbolism, and enchanting monologues, The Green Knight is certainly a film built for multiple viewings. The threat of Gawain losing his head lies as a persistent undercurrent beneath his quest, especially as he is met along the way with the task to retrieve another’s from within a spring. But as he searches for greater significance, it also comes to signify something more personal to our hero – a spiritual chastening, through which he loses his ego and accepts the presence of greater natural forces at play. The ravages of time specifically wreak great devastation upon human delusions of power, and in formally recurring visions of alternate futures seeded throughout the film, Lowery continues to posit either one of two ideas – either we meet the consequences of our actions in the present, or we meet it further down the road. Twice do we see such visions paired with slow-moving, 360-degree camera pans through which he evokes the steadily pivoting hands of a clock, visually manifesting the glacial encroachment of nature and time upon the realms of men.

A ghostly interlude in Gawain’s quest, accompanied with an ethereal mist and gnarled trees.
Lowery slowly tilts the camera upside-down here as Gawain enters a new world.

And indeed, these two forces are often bound together in the film, fusing both physical and metaphysical worlds within the representation of the Green Knight himself. He is patient, but also inevitable. He does not seek out Gawain, and yet he doesn’t need to. Most importantly, he is no villain. He encourages those at the end of their lives to not experience death as a terrifying epiphany, but rather a great humbling. As for when exactly one meets their end – that is merely a reflection of their own actions towards the world at large. Such delicate poetic justice instils The Green Knight with a cyclical structure, not so much within Gawain’s immediate story, but within the hypnotic rhythms and repetitions of the world around him, and consequently pulls us ever deeper into its mystical, foreboding heart.

Openings in the scenery always offering a sense of intrigue and discovery.

The Green Knight is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

8 thoughts on “The Green Knight (2021)”

  1. Hi, Declan! Great review here, I agree with your rating and I’m happy we’re on the same page. But I wanted to ask (and excuse me if I have before, my memory is terrible) if you’re planning on doing a best of the year/decade/all-time list. I love to see people’s rankings of movies and I highly respect your opinion, so that would be nice to see – although I understand it’s a massive undertaking.

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    1. Thanks Pedro! I actually put together a top 100 of the 2010s recently which at the moment is sitting on a spreadsheet on my laptop, but I should probably put it up soon. I will also put up some year lists for the decade along with that. As for an all-time list, it’s something that intimidates me a little because I feel like my opinion is always shifting with exact placements, but I should probably just suck it up and do it haha.

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      1. Awesome. I also wanted to know how you approach films nowadays. Do you think film criticism is all subjective? Do you think it can be strictly objetive? Do you have “favorites” list or is “favorite” the same as “best” to you? I ask this because over the past couple of months my movie taste has become much more… empirical? My list of favorites used to just be movies that moved me or had a profound emotional impact on me, but now I see myself giving five stars (I guess a MP rating?) to films that didn’t make me cry, laugh or cheer, but rather that stumped me with astonishing filmmaking. I’m not being dishonest or trying to seem intellectual, this is just how it has been. With that said, though, there are a few films that I have such a strong emotional attachment to, that they end up (for now; you never know) in my top 10/20/50 of all time, even if there are “superior” works of art out there. Does that happen to you?

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      2. I’ve definitely been on a similar journey over the past year or two. The more I expand the diversity of films I watch, the more I accept that not every film is meant to speak to everyone equally, but that doesn’t mean it has to stop me from appreciating where the artist is coming from. I recently did a Jia Zhangke study (which I intend to post on here at some point) and at first I found myself not particularly moved by his wistful musings over modern changes in Chinese culture, because it wasn’t something I had experienced or could understand on a personal level. But after a while I just kind of accepted that in spite of that, watching these films was my chance to open myself up to those feelings and ideas a little bit more, and I could get to that by looking at the elements of cinematic language inherent in the films.

        I can’t really guess whether someone reading my review will love or hate a film I recommend, but the best I can do is keep broadening my own tastes so I can provide some level of objectivity in my writing and analysis, and then maybe whoever is reading it can determine whether it is something that does appeal to them – or maybe even if it doesn’t, they might be intrigued enough to at least give it a try.

        My favourites list has gradually been turning into a “best” list as well. There’s a part of me that still adores watching Paddington 2, and it is often a film I recommend if someone is specifically asking me for something wholesome, funny, and charming to watch, but I wouldn’t put it up with the likes of La Dolce Vita or Breathless, both of which blow me away on pretty much every other level. Like you said it’s not about being dishonest, but I can’t be certain a film that appeals to me so subjectively will appeal to someone else in the same way. If there is something objective in it I can point at though, we can at least appreciate that on the same level.

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  2. Certainly. I agree, but then I would ask: why? Why is film form significant? Why is repeating a song over and over again in a movie great cinema? (I’m being broad, but you know what I mean). Do you think, for example, that Wong Kar-wai’s intention with In the Mood for Love was to create one of the best examples of film form? Does he even think about that? I love to analyze movies that way; try to pick up on formal cues and see how they relate to the narrative, but why is that considered good? I guess perhaps I’m asking if the chicken came before the egg or not, but these are questions that bother me.

    And why don’t other aspects matter? It’s interesting to me, for example, how much your opinion on John Ford’s The Searchers changed after a second viewing. How could you get past the blatant racism? How can one not see The Birth of a Nation as nothing more than a disgusting piece of media? I’m not saying I won’t be able to surpass these obstacles at some point (my taste has changed enough in the past year for me to expect anything), but it seems pretty impossible right now. I can’t for the life of me enjoy Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America because it sides with a rapist piece of shit. Ugh… morals.

    Sorry to drop all of this on you, but you seem like someone who has gone through what I’m going through quite recently, so this can lead to a good discussion. Thanks!

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    1. Such great questions I’m afraid I won’t do them justice, but I’ll give it a shot. These are definitely ideas I’m still working through myself. I think film form is important in that a piece of art that is cohesive is far preferable to one that isn’t. There is a Kubrick quote I love that calls cinema a progression of moods and feelings, and that’s all. This is probably a bit of a simplification but I think the “moods and feelings” bit comes more from the style, and the “progression” is the form – how a certain concept or device is developed or repeated. Those are the two most important things in the end for me. Repeating a song several times is one way to do that since it gives us an emotion to hold onto that carries throughout, but of course you can get into the nitty gritty details of why it exactly works on a case by case basis – why repeating California Dreamin’ in Chungking Express is a great artistic choice and helps us identify a dominant emotion in Faye Wong’s character for example, versus why repeating Crazy Frog in a kids animation might be more grating than artistic (weird example I know haha).

      I find it fascinating how some directors look at style and form from technical standpoints, and then others are completely intuitive and go off gut feeling. I get the feeling John Ford was like that. His best films are so striking and can be broken down into specific details, but from what I read he was also a grumpy old bastard who didn’t even see the movies he was making as art, and just did what felt good to his own sensibilities. It’s pretty much the complete opposite to someone like Kubrick who I believe was definitely considering the theoretical detail of it all. I’m still not entirely sure which side Wong lands on, but I believe that there are a lot of great filmmakers who understand cinematic language on an instinctual level.

      I took up a suggestion from Drake about a year ago to seek out a copy of David Bordwell’s book Film Art: An Introduction, and as much as I love the work Drake does on the Cinema Archives, reading Bordwell has been a bigger game changer for me. His whole approach to film theory is neoformalism, and he lays out the criteria pretty plainly in stating what is and isn’t consider under that branch. There was one passage in the book about separating certain things like the morality of a film from its artistic quality, which I’m sure he put in far better words than me. If I find it again I’ll post it here. And yeah, it’s not easy at all. I can’t speak for The Birth of a Nation since I haven’t seen it, but my second viewing of The Searchers was a big turning point for me in approaching this. If art is an expression of an idea or opinion, then I try to just focus on the expression since that’s really the artistic part.

      Me calling it a masterpiece doesn’t mean that I would recommend it to just anyone though, since I don’t think it is to the tastes of most people I know. But if someone was approaching it through a broader lens of cinema as art, then it’s definitely something I would encourage them to check out. I hope this at least partly answers your questions.

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