David Lowery’s adaptation of the Arthurian tale applies a stolid approach to a loose, lyrical story, to mixed results.
It’s no more than a few minutes into its 132-minute runtime that The Green Knight lays its cards on the table. It doesn’t really subvert expectations here; it’s not like it immediately carves out its identity. Rather, it makes itself clear in the most literal of ways, although in one that doesn’t register as such immediately. After an opening in which Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) wakes up hungover and half-naked, the camera tracks him from behind through sweaty medieval corridors and out into the cloud-covered morning. As he walks through the village, text flashes across the screen declaring itself “a filmed adaptation.”
At first, it seems tongue-in-cheek, and perhaps it is in some ways. Of course it’s a filmed adaptation of the late 14th century’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, though, that’s strictly the case at times. It doesn’t so much grow the tale it’s based on; it doesn’t completely further it to another medium. Rather, it seems aware of what it’s putting onto the big screen. Not much more, not much less. Here’s a story that’s so inherently loose and extemporaneous. It doesn’t help, then, that David Lowery’s approach is hermetic enough that there’s not too much of the film from its neck up.
While the source material’s prose does the lion’s share of conveying its arc, the writer/director/editor doesn’t lend that here. As such, it’s a simple story simply told: One Christmastime, Gawain, nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and knight of the Round Table, is met with the Green Knight himself (Ralph Ineson). The latter challenges all to a game only Gawain accepts, decapitating the stranger with his own axe. Unharmed, the Knight takes back his head, tells Gawain to meet him at one Green Chapel a year later, and leaves. It’s next Christmastime that Gawain fulfills the obligation as requested, and off on his journey he goes.
At first, the filmmaking stands out in how adjacent scenes contrast. Daniel Hart’s score is distractingly present in several only to disappear suddenly, while Lowery and DP Andrew Droz Palmero rotate between basic camera movements and almost complete inaction. It works for a bit if largely because it makes the picture harder to suss out; the same goes for its bits of droll comedy, which almost feel trepidatious. Patel, all the while, is decent more because of how he fits the part than how he plays it. It’s Alicia Vikander as his lover, Essel, whose delivery is frosty enough to give the sense that she understands the subtext better than her castmates.
The main problem, though, is that The Green Knight itself is too stoic. The approaches in the first 20 minutes or so are perplexing at times, but it’s afterward that they start to register as unsure or detached from the story. As such, the quieter pieces are the ones that truly land. When Gawain rides through the country in an unbroken tracking shot, the trail growing longer and smaller behind him, it works. It allows this world to breathe, to let the children and shepherds and sheep graze the frame and fall into the distance. When Gawain falls into an all-too-brief psychedelic state later on, the framing expands and the scope falls in on itself.
Moments like these play best since they mark a symbiosis between content and approach. Otherwise, Lowery is unwilling to lean into what should be an acid trip at times given its structure and themes. He lacks the lyricism to bring to life what he has here, and it begins to feel like walking on gravel. There’s a sense of texture, but The Green Knight has just enough give that it’s impossible to come in full contact with everything. It’s really quite frustrating, then, that as the movie goes into its last half-hour, it somehow feels like it doesn’t have as much to it as it should.
Here’s a story that’s so inherently loose and extemporaneous. It doesn’t help, then, that David Lowery’s approach is hermetic enough that there’s not too much of the film from its neck up.
It knows of the story’s undercurrents, but it doesn’t explore them enough. The feminism of Essel and the homoeroticism applied to Gawain and Essel’s husband (Joel Edgerton) lack the depth or consistency to work for more than moments at a time. The spurts of sexuality are often just that—spurts—that don’t fully thread the relationship between sex and gender at hand. Meanwhile, the push-pull relationship between Catholicism and paganism relies mostly on iconography rather than ideology and aesthetics. All of the themes feel like they’re stuck in the peripheries and fighting each other for screen time.
Is anything abjectly wrong with the film? No. Yet there’s also not a massive amount that nails its aspirations. The disconnect between the onscreen events and the execution comes to feel like what may happen when a filmmaker re-edits their own movie. What are ostensibly the most important facets—the Arthurian setting and religious connotations, mainly—manage to feel somewhat like window dressing. The aesthetic patience of a few scenes is when The Green Knight starts to clear its head. This filmed adaptation has its body fully intact, but without the prose to back it up, it can’t help but feel a bit too headless.
The Green Knight treks into theaters this Friday, July 30.