REVIEW: The Green Knight
If Wes Anderson directed an episode of Game of Thrones that was written by Neil Gaiman, you would have David Lowery’s The Green Knight.
Based on the 14th century poem, this cinematic adaptation is morally cryptic as well as stylistically curious. This film provokes a number of challenging questions linked to honour, greatness, and virtue, with the main revelation being that, much like in the riddle of life, there are no easy answers.
The film tells the story of Gawain, a young man who rises to the challenge of a mystical Green Knight who arrives before King Arthur’s court. On the surface, the challenge is simple: whoever is brave enough to strike a blow against the Green Knight shall receive his ax; however, in one year, the Green Knight shall return the blow at the Green Chapel. Hungry to prove himself, Gawain accepts the challenge, dismissing it as a game. Gawain’s strike beheads the Knight… only for the Knight to rise, and, with severed head in hand, proclaims the strike will be repaid “in one year hence.” The story follows Gawain’s journey to meet his destiny at the Green Chapel while encountering opportunities to prove his knightly virtue on his quest for honour.
Lowery’s adaptation does not deviate heavily from the original source material; however, some liberties were taken with the motivation of some of the central characters. For instance, Gawain is not yet a knight, as he is compelled to rise to the Green Knight’s challenge in pursuit of knighthood. This adjustment strengthens Gawain’s objective and also provides opportunities for Gawain (as well as the audience) to question the supposed inherent “greatness” that comes with the pursuit of knighthood.
Another adjustment made to the story is Gawain’s mother’s relationship to the inciting incident of the story - and, particularly, her central motivation. A magical figure, the mother’s presence in the film is somewhat ambiguous because it is unclear if she is a benevolent or malevolent force on Gawain’s journey. Is she trying to help her son out of love? Or are her wants perhaps more sinister? Her role in the film is consciously vague, which could reflect the themes of questioning honour. However, in a film that is already enigmatic in nature, the lack of clarity surrounding her motivations did little to justify the adjustment.
In terms of visuals, the design of the film succeeds at making even the most fantastical elements seem grounded in realism. However, Lowery’s vision for the film was not to make the audience “lose themselves” in the lifelike visuals, rather it was to heighten their awareness that they were experiencing a story. Supporting this choice was the narrative framing of the story, in what was perhaps the most stylized visual choice of the film. From jump cuts to title cards, the inclusion of these elements appear to be used to reflect the ‘storybook’ quality of the narrative. This choice alienates the audience by consciously reminding them that they are the experiencing story, and moreover, a story with moral virtue to be critiqued.
The film’s ending is what makes Lowery’s vision deserving of praise in that he managed to make a seven-hundred year old Arthurian legend still take the viewer by surprise. What begins as the assumption that creative license was taken in the telling of the final events of the poem is in actuality an incredibly faithful presentation of the message of the story. The vitality of this moment can not be understated, because at its heart lies the poem’s message that made it endure as more than just a relic of history, but as a code of morality.
The greatest strength of the film is the irreverent reverence of Lowery’s vision for the story. This approach to the classics is somewhat of a paradox: in order for the message of classic stories to endure, they must be challenged to allow the audience to reflect upon the broader significance as to why they are being told in the first place. For this film to jostle 21st century relevance from a medieval poem about romantic chivalry, the only resounding clarity to emerge from the story is that David Lowery’s vision is far from complacent.