I’ll admit I was both rather excited and a bit unsure about the Green Knight movie when I saw the first trailers. The legend of Gawain and the Green Knight is one of my favourites of the Arthurian cannon, in fact Gawain is one of my favourite knights of the round table, which is why two of his legends ended up in my own novel ‘The Mystery of St. Arondight’s’. However, reviews of the film were good and I do rather like Dev Patel as an actor. Unfortunately, with work commitments, an ongoing pandemic and no open local cinema I missed the film’s initial shot on the big screen (it appears that some cinemas are currently showing it, though not many). Trawling for something to watch on Saturday night though, I spotted that it was now available to watch on Amazon Prime.
A little background first for those who do not know the story of the Green Knight, this is a tale of the honour of Gawain, a story in the Arthurian mythology to highlight the qualities of this, the best and most loyal of Arthur’s knights. At least that is the case in the anonymous poem Gawain and the Green Knight and its subsequent inclusion in the Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century. It is possible that the story has much older roots and relates to old Welsh tales, however, there is no time to go into all that now as I want to concentrate on the film.
I was initially very curious as to how a two hour film (run time 2hr 10) would be made of a story that can be summarised in a few lines, so for the sake of argument I’ll do it here. Arthur and his knights are at court for Christmas, the Green Knight bursts in and issues a challenge, ‘a blow for a blow,’ meaning a knight can strike him today and meet him in the green chapel a year hence for the return strike. All seems well, Gawain gets up and thinking to outsmart the Green Knight lops his head off. End of the story you might think, but the jolly Green Knight picks up his head and demands Gawain meet him in one year so that he can return the strike. One year passes at Camelot and Gawain heads off to seek out the Green Knight, stopping at a castle along the way where he enjoys the company of a hunter and his wife. As long as Gawain stays with the hunter they agree to a gift exchange, the hunter will give Gawain anything he kills in the forest that day if Gawain gives the hunter in return anything that came to him in the castle. Unfortunately for Gawain, the lady of the castle tries to seduce him, and he rebuffs her, although allows her to kiss him, then of course having to pass these kisses on to the hunter when he returns, as per the deal. On the final day the lady gives Gawain an enchanted sash, claiming that whilst he is wearing it he will not be harmed. As our hero reckons the Green Knight will chop his head off he accepts this and fails to give it to the hunter when he returns. Then Gawain heads off to the Green Knight to complete his challenge. Gawain flinches at the first swing of the Green Knight’s axe and the Green Knight chastises him for it saying that this attempt does not count as he never flinched when Gawain struck him. Gawain does not flinch the second time but the Green Knight holds back his swing, this makes Gawain angry and he demands that the knight play the game properly, which he does, leaving a cut on Gawain’s neck and revealing himself to be the hunter (cursed to appear as the Green Knight and issue this challenge. The cut that Gawain received is because he hid the enchanted sash, however he is declared the most honourable knight of the realm, (which may say more about the rest of Arthur’s knights than it does about Gawain). He returns to Camelot triumphant, but wears the sash always to remind him of his failure and to always behave with honesty and honour.
So, a relatively short and simple story to turn into a long film. ‘The Green Knight’ keeps the bones of the original story, and actually sticks much closer to the original text than previous films, such as ‘Sword of the Valliant’ (1984) did. Of course the film makes some alterations and additions to the story (as has every storyteller through the ages), but this is a good retelling of the traditional Green Knight legend. Our hero is not yet a knight, this is the tale about how he became a knight. He is flawed, a far cry from Malory’s shining medieval knight in armour Gawain, but this is what makes the character interesting, (also I learned within minutes of the film starting that I may have been pronouncing Gawain wrong all my life, I tend towards Ga-Wayne, whereas the film calls him Ger-win). We also see a different portrayal of King Arthur, he is barely present within the story (he doesn’t need to be) but he is old, wise and clearly troubled by his history. Merlin too lurks on the sidelines, never referred to by name but obvious in his actions. There are witches and magic too, the film does not ignore the magic of the Arthurian legends it embraces it. This world is one where magic and humanity live side by side in a grubby early medieval style world, full of sweeping open landscapes and dense woodlands.
The tale unfolds much as the legend usually does with Christmas eve at Camelot – although Gawain has to be dragged from the bed of a harlot first (not something Malory’s Gawain, that gleaming scion of propriety, would be caught doing), but a realistic enough portrayal of a young man with nothing better to do and a way of showing us that this Gawain is a bit of a deadbeat. The Green Knight himself is beautifully done, part man, part tree; he appears as if kin to the tree folk of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (indeed Tolkein himself wrote a version of the Green Knight myth and his LOTR characters draw a lot from the Arthurian cycles).
The film is well shot with gorgeous panning scenes and soft lighting, although a large portion of it takes place in darkened scenes where subtle gestures and symbolism was not always easy to see on the small screen. There are also several characters and plots through the film that are never clearly defined and can be interpreted in many ways. For example, the fox that travels with Gawain for a time could be a magic guide from his mother (a witch), or a manifestation of Gawain’s fears as he faces his destiny. Alternately it could be a spirit guide like Homer’s chili space Coyote in The Simpsons. I feel a second watch of the film will bring the reasoning for the fox and a few other elements to light a little more. Gawain’s fear of destiny and the results of his potential choices are shown several times throughout the film too, which lead to some non-linear sequences that may throw off viewers who are not paying attention.
I feel that the film may have missed a trick with another legend of Gawain that could have fitted well into the story. Gawain and the lady Ragnell is another of the more famous Arthurian tales. A hideous lady comes to court looking for a husband, an unmarried Gawain accepts her hand as per his honour and they are married that afternoon. He later discovers her to be cursed, she will be ugly for 12 hours and beautiful for 12 hours and Gawain must choose which 12 hours is which. Feeling unequal to this task Gawain hands the decision to the lady, lifting the curse.
I think there are changes that could have been made to this tale that would have fitted into the film with the characters who were already there. The lady need not have transformed from ugly to beauty as both characteristics are in the eye of the beholder but, the tale could have been moulded to fit the character of the harlot woman who seemed to play a large role in our hero’s life only to be shunned later in the film. Though on second thought, perhaps this legend was there all along but with a little more subtly as Alicia Vikander brilliantly plays both the harlot girl and the wife of the hunter, or perhaps I’m reading more into her duel role than is really there.
The film is perhaps definitely more of a work of art than an easily watchable piece of entertainment but for those who appreciate good cinematography, lighting effects and complex story, it will be an interesting diversion for an evening. Similar in style and pacing to the 2015 version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender. For those who know their Arthurian mythology it should be possible to notice the scattered messages and fragments of Arthuriana throughout. However if action is more to your taste, then another fairly recent film ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,’ may be the more entertaining film (you can read my review of that film here) and Monty Python’s Holy Grail is always worth going back to for the sheer slapstick silliness and eminently quotable dialogue (there are often conversations about coconuts and the speed velocity of swallows on site – usually when debating the requirement of a hard hat in an open field with no operational machinery). Or if reading your mythology is preferable there are many versions of the Green Knight Story, The original anonymous poem, the chapter in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, For younger readers Roger Lancelyn Green’s version of the Arthurian tales has an excellent retelling, and I will of course recommend my own retelling of the Green Knight story in ‘The Mystery of St. Arondight’s’ where Gawain takes on the role of the Green Knight with the feckless teenager Jerry Llewellyn in Gawain’s traditional role, trying desperately to prove his honour and not lose his head.
I think the film deserves a second watch in order to really appreciate some of the subtler elements and perhaps to make sense of those bits that on first viewing I found myself a little confused by. I actually only realised this morning that I had wholly missed the character of Morgan Le Fay when she was right in front of my eyes.
I was entertained and curious throughout and would rate the film a 7/10
The full trailer can be found here.
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.