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The Green Knight (2021)

A fantasy retelling of the medieval story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Green Knight (2021) Trailer

 

The Green Knight (2021) Reviews

Light snow, misty fog, and falling ash blend in the opening scenes of David Lowery’s magnificent “The Green Knight,” setting a surreal tone for what’s to come. You can feel the chill and smell the air. Immediately, you feel outside yourself, far from daily concerns, set for an experience that’s unlike anything else in nearby theaters. That feeling won’t subside for over two hours.

Lowery has adapted the 14th century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into one of the most memorable films of the year, a fascinating swirl of masculinity, temptation, heroism, and religion.

Arthurian experts may quibble with some of Lowery’s decisions and it is certainly a film that challenges traditional expectations of stories about heroic knights for modern audiences, but fans will be drawn to this mesmerizing journey guided by Lowery’s incredibly poetic eye, career-best work from Dev Patel, and an artistic sensibility that transports audiences to another world.

It’s a film that embeds the concept of storytelling and performance into its narrative—whether it’s a King asking for a heroic tale or children watching a puppet show—while also weaving its own enchanting spell on audiences. More than any movie in a long time, I would have immediately watched it again, but it’s also a film that really strengthens in memory, swirling around your brain like the falling flakes of the opening scenes.

Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), and the son of Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), accused by some in the village of witchcraft. After a brief opening scene with his lover (Alicia Vikander) and mother, Gawain is off to a lavish Christmas banquet with the King and Queen, at which he is surprised to be asked to sit by their side.

Arthur speaks to him of taking young Gawain for granted, and immediately Patel conveys depth with his striking eyes, relaying both the emotional pride that comes with finally feeling seen. (He does so much throughout the film in terms of physical performance, using his eyes and body to find emotion without dialogue.) Long, deliberately slow exchanges between Gawain and Arthur set the tone: This is not an action film. Arthur asks to hear a tale.

One unfolds in front of their eyes. The doors to the hall burst open and the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters. Half-man, half-tree, he casts an imposing figure, and he wants to play “The Christmas Game.” He offers a deal. He challenges any of Arthur’s knights to strike him. If they can, the knight will get his imposing weapon in exchange. But there’s a cost.

A year hence, the knight must come to the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight will return the exact strike given him a year earlier. Gawain steps forward, and despite being reminded that this is a game by Arthur, beheads the Green Knight. The mythical creature picks up his head, which doesn’t seem too concerned about its detachment, and laughs as it rides off. Gawain is about to have a long year.

This is all really prologue to “The Green Knight,” the bulk of which consists of Sir Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel to meet his fate. Along the way, he meets a scavenger played by Barry Keoghan, a mysterious young woman played by Erin Kellyman, and a Lord played by Joel Edgerton. Lowery’s script deftly matches the poetic structure of its source, circling back to themes like the rhyming structure of a poem, and unfolding his story in what almost feel like cinematic stanzas that repeat and comment on each other.

Gawain’s journey becomes a spiral, feeling more and more like a dream, as if he never really left that banquet with the Green Knight to begin with, and the film gains momentum through a cumulative sense of disorientation. It becomes not so much a story of a physical journey but a mental and emotional one, a series of challenges before a young man faces his ultimate fate.

With its loose storytelling structure, the tech elements of “The Green Knight” become even more essential to its success. Lowery has brought his remarkable team, including regular composer Daniel Hart and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo. (He edits the film himself, and reportedly re-cut it dramatically from the version that was supposed to premiere at SXSW in March of 2020.)

The fluid cinematography alternates between dreamlike and something deeply connected to Mother Nature. “The Green Knight” is about many things—and some of the best film writing of this year will unpack its themes in more depth—but a sense of man’s relatively minor role in the grand scope of history and nature is essential, and Palermo beautifully captures the lush greens of the world around Gawain, as if the Knight himself is already everywhere.

Vikander gets a phenomenal speech about how much we all return to the earth and Gawain is constantly being reminded of his insignificance and fragility. If The Green Knight doesn’t get him, something else will.

While it may be his most ambitious film, Lowery has played with complex themes before in projects like “A Ghost Story,” and this reflects that film’s questioning of meaning in the relatively small window of a human existence. Once again, Lowery leaves just enough open to interpretation and yet never lacks in confidence.

That’s the incredibly fine line that great films often walk—when a work can feel both assured in the voices of its creators and yet open enough to spark conversation. “The Green Knight” is one of those films. One never questions that Lowery knows exactly what he’s doing, and yet people will walk away with very different readings of “The Green Knight.” Again, that’s akin to a great poem that means something unique to each person that reads it, and some of those readings may even surprise the original author.

“The Green Knight” asks a lot of its viewers—to stay engaged with what could be called its slow pace, to consider its themes without them being underlined for easy consumption, to be willing to see a film about famous knight that contains very little in the way of traditional heroism. It is scary, sexy, and strange in ways that American films are rarely allowed to be, culminating in a sequence that cast the whole film in a new light for this viewer. We’re all just sitting in that banquet hall, listening to the story requested by King Arthur, told by a master storyteller.

  • Brian Tallerico –  Roger Ebert
  • Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

If one was to skim through the vast trove of movies set in and around the mythical reign of King Arthur, it would be difficult to find one like The Green Knight. Based on the anonymous 14th century chivalric romance, David Lowrey’s interpretation isn’t the first time the story has been adapted (there were previous movies in 1973 and 1984 and made-for-TV versions 1991 and 2002) but Lowrey has shed conventional fantasy adventure tropes in exchange for a moody, trippy approach that transforms the well-known Arthurian tale into something offbeat and surprising.

The Green Knight isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. It demands the viewer’s attention and may require a second viewing (or previous familiarity with the story) to decode some of what happens along the way. Consider the Green Knight’s origins, an old woman’s identity, and some of the interactions between Gawain (Dev Patel) and Lord Bertilak (Joel Edgerton) – none of these things are explicitly explained.

They require a little reading between the lines. The ending is ambiguous – what happens after the final frame is open to interpretation. Lowery has deviated from the source text for the climatic confrontation so it’s not as cut-and-dried as it might seem.

The film opens by introducing us to Gawain, the favored nephew of an elderly King Arthur (Sean Harris). Gawain lives with his mother (Sarita Choudhury), a witch, and dallies with the Irish lass Essel (Alicia Vikander). On Christmas Day, Gawain is at court to view the arrival of The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a giant who offers a challenge: anyone who can wound him in combat can have the use of his great ax for a year.

There’s a catch, though: at the end of the year, the victor must return the ax to The Green Knight at The Green Chapel and submit to receiving a replica of the blow he delivered to win the weapon. Gawain accepts the challenge and, using a borrowed Excalibur, beheads The Green Knight, who picks up his severed head, leaves the ax for Gawain, and issues a reminder: “I’ll see you in a year’s time.” The year passes quickly and, as Christmas approaches, Gawain sets off on a journey that could end with his death.

The Green Knight plays like a medieval road movie. Gawain’s journey is episodic – something explicitly recognized by the screenplay, which provides titles for each new chapter (“The Christmas Game”, “A Kindness”, “Interlude”, etc.). It’s open to interpretation how many of his encounters are real. Lowery interweaves reality with fantasy while throwing in the occasional dream, delusion, and/or hallucination. Half of what happens to Gawain may be playing out in his imagination. The film also answers a question about the road not taken.

The narrative is anything but watertight and thinking viewers will immediately recognize some sizeable plot holes. (The biggest, and most obvious, is why Gawain beheads The Green King when a less fatal wound would have achieved the same victory.) It’s somewhat unfair to blame Lowery’s screenplay for many of these instances since they are present in the source material.

The director does what he can by crafting an almost overpowering tone and atmosphere to dilute any plot-related hiccups. They’re still easily identified, but they don’t distract as forcefully as they might in a more traditional format.

Dev Patel, unconventional though his casting may be, is one of the movie’s strengths. His Gawain is conflicted between honor and survival. He wants nothing more than to fulfill his duties and become a knight but temptations litter the path before him. The central theme of the source poem relates to Gawain’s struggle to adhere to the code of chivalry, and that remains intact here.

Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander is underused despite having a dual role. Oddly for an Arthurian story, this one presents the king and his queen as aged and infirm. To this end, Sean Harris and Kate Dickie are effective choices although history is unlikely to remember them. (Neither the movie nor the credits explicitly refer to them as Arthur and Guinevere, thereby making it clear the focus is on Gawain, not any of the other figures who stand tall in Camelot’s lore.)

The Green Knight is not mainstream fantasy. It is assembled with the care of an arthouse feature, focusing on intangibles. The score features many choral arrangements and the camera is attracted to trees and shadows. The film is dark, with nary a shot in bright daylight.

Many scenes occur in darkness illuminated only by a few candles and outdoor shots are often at night, under a sun-obscuring canopy of trees, or shrouded in fog. There are numerous long pans – one memorable one moves time ahead into the future as it slowly circumscribes a circle. Lowery is more interested in Gawain’s internal struggles than the ones he engages in with an ax or blade. There’s little in the way of swordplay (unless you count scenes featuring a puppet show).

The movie’s strength lies in its uniqueness. It would have been easy to provide a straightforward, “Lord of the Rings”-style telling of the story but Lowery has shown the courage of his convictions and gone in a direction that may struggle to find love at the box office. Once in a while, however, the fantasy genre needs something off-kilter like this to stave off staleness. The Green Knight has its share of flaws but there’s a freshness to Lowery’s approach that demands to be noticed.

  • A movie review by James Berardinelli

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The Green Knight (2021) Credits

The Green Knight movie poster

The Green Knight (2021)

Rated R

125 minutes

Cast

Dev Patel as Gawain

Alicia Vikander as Lady / Essel

Joel Edgerton as Lord

Sarita Choudhury as Mother

Sean Harris as King

Kate Dickie as Queen

Barry Keoghan as Scavenger

Erin Kellyman as Winfred

Ralph Ineson as Green Knight

Director

  • David Lowery

Writer

  • David Lowery

Cinematographer

  • Andrew Droz Palermo

Editor

  • David Lowery

Composer

  • Daniel Hart

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The Green Knight (2021) Plot

On Christmas morning, Gawain is awakened in a brothel by his lover, a common woman named Essel. He returns to Camelot, where he is scolded by his mother (she is not named, but is implied to be Morgan le Fay). Gawain attends a feast at the Round Table with his uncle King Arthur, who invites Gawain to sit at his right hand. Elsewhere, in a tower, le Fay performs a magic rite which summons the mysterious Green Knight.

He barges into Arthur’s court and states that any knight who lands a blow on him will win his green axe but must travel to the Green Chapel and receive an equal blow in return on the following Christmas. Gawain takes up the challenge. The Knight yields and Gawain, wielding Excalibur, decapitates him. The Knight rises and retrieves his severed head, repeats the requisite date to Gawain and rides away.

Gawain revels all year; Arthur reminds him to uphold his side of the challenge. Gawain departs on horseback for the Green Chapel; he takes the green axe and he wears a green girdle given to him by his mother. She says that as long as he wears it, he shall suffer no harm. On his journey, he crosses a battlefield littered with dead warriors, where he meets a scavenging boy. The boy directs Gawain to a stream that leads to the Green Chapel, and asks for payment. Gawain flips him a single coin.

Shortly afterwards, the boy and two others ambush Gawain and steal the axe, girdle and horse, leaving Gawain tied up. He crawls to his sword and uses it to cut the ropes binding his hands and then he pursues them. At nightfall, Gawain arrives at an abandoned cottage and falls asleep in its bed. He is awakened by a young woman named Winifred, who asks Gawain to retrieve something that she has lost, from a nearby spring. He asks what he will receive in return, but is rebuffed.

He finds her skull and unites it with her skeletal remains and the next morning finds the axe has been returned to him.

Gawain befriends a fox who accompanies him on his journey. They reach a castle inhabited by Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert, who informs him that the Green Chapel is nearby, and Gawain accepts his invitation to stay. The Lord’s lady resembles Essel; she makes seductive overtures toward Gawain. The two men agree that de Hautdesert will trade the prize from his hunt for whatever Gawain receives at the castle.

The next morning, the Lady presents Gawain with the green girdle, which she claims to have made herself; in exchange for it, Gawain accedes to her advances. Gawain flees and encounters the Lord in the forest, who gives him a kiss. The Lord reveals that he has captured Gawain’s fox and releases it; Gawain does not offer the girdle. Gawain reaches a stream where a boat is waiting.

The fox speaks to Gawain; it says, “Your doom is at hand,” and implores him to turn back. Gawain chases off the fox and takes the boat to the chapel, where the Knight sits in hibernation. Gawain waits through the night, and the Green Knight awakens on Christmas morning.

The Green Knight swings the axe and Gawain flinches. The Knight chides him. Gawain kneels for the blow again, but at the last moment, he scrambles away. He imagines fleeing back to Camelot and becoming king after Arthur’s death. In Gawain’s reverie, Essel bears his son, but Gawain abandons her, takes the child and marries a noblewoman (who looks identical to Winifred) instead.

His son comes of age and dies in battle. Many years later, Gawain has become a reviled king. His castle is under siege and his family abandons him; he removes the green girdle (which he had worn the entire time since re-obtaining it from the Lady), and his head falls from his shoulders, with the crown on the ground near him.

Back in the present in the Green Chapel, Gawain kneels and removes the girdle, and tells the Knight that he is ready. The Knight praises Gawain for his bravery, then drags his finger across Gawain’s throat, says, “Now, off with your head”, and smiles kindly.

In an after-credits scene, a little girl picks up the crown and playfully places it on her head, in an implication that Gawain’s life was spared when he exhibited true honesty and integrity to the Green Knight. Gawain’s subsequent choices led to a better life for him and the kingdom. The girl could represent a princess born of Essel and Gawain, playing in a tranquil, prosperous kingdom rather than one under siege.

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The Green Knight (2021) Box office

The Green Knight grossed $17.2 million in the United States and Canada, and $1.8 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $19 million.

In the United States and Canada, The Green Knight was released alongside Jungle Cruise and Stillwater, and was projected to gross around $4 million from 2,790 theaters in its opening weekend. The film made $2.9 million on its first day, including $750,000 from Thursday night previews. It ended up slightly over-performing, debuting to $6.8 million and finished second at the box office behind Jungle Cruise. The film played best in big markets such as New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The film fell 62% to $2.6 million in its second weekend, finishing sixth, then made $1.6 million in its third weekend.

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The Green Knight (2021) Critical Response

As of November 2021, on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film had an approval rating of 89% based on 278 reviews, with an average rating of 8/10. The site’s critics consensus reads, “The Green Knight honors and deconstructs its source material in equal measure, producing an absorbing adventure that casts a fantastical spell.” As of November 2021, on Metacritic, it had a weighted average score of 85 out of 100 based on 49 critics, indicating “universal acclaim”.

Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “C+” on an A+ to F scale. 

Writing for Vulture, Alison Willmore said that the film “is about someone who keeps waiting for external forces to turn him into the gallant, heroic figure he believes he should be”, and added: “at the film’s heart is a lesson that’s as timeless as any legend — travel as far as you like, but you’ll never be able to leave yourself behind.” 

Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com gave the film a score of 4 out of 4 stars, describing the film as “one of the most memorable films of the year, a fascinating swirl of masculinity, temptation, heroism, and religion”, adding: “It’s a film that embeds the concept of storytelling and performance into its narrative … while also weaving its own enchanting spell on audiences.”

Barry Hertz of The Globe and Mail described the film as “a beautiful, haunting and enigmatic work that reckons with the folklore’s grave and tragic elements to deliver a masterpiece of blood, sex and magic”, and praised Patel’s performance as Gawain.

John Nugent of Empire gave the film a score of 5 out of 5 stars, describing it as “a rivetingly weird and exceptionally beautiful fantasy film that offers no easy answers but ponders the biggest questions”, and wrote that the film was “Revisionist Fantasy, doing for the genre what the likes of Robert Altman or Alejandro Jodorowsky did with their Revisionist Westerns: bringing an avant-garde flair and an ambiguous morality to a previously occasionally cheesy and childlike world.” 

Keith Watson of Slant Magazine gave the film a score of 2.5 out of 4 stars, describing it as “A self-consciously revisionist take on Camelot lore”, and wrote that the film “smooths out the enduring mysteries, opaque psychology, and narrative idiosyncrasies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, resulting in a work that’s only superficially more daring and enigmatic than its source material.”

Simon Abrams of TheWrap wrote that “while there’s a lot of commendable chutzpah and curious longing baked into The Green Knight, the movie’s never as compelling as it is unusual.”

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The Green Knight (2021) Accolades

 
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result
Hollywood Music in Media Awards November 17, 2021 Original Score — Independent Film Daniel Hart Nominated
Gotham Awards November 29, 2021 Best Feature The Green Knight Nominated
Best Screenplay David Lowery Nominated
National Board of Review Awards December 2, 2021 Top Independent Films The Green Knight Won
Detroit Film Critics Society Awards December 6, 2021 Best Director David Lowery Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Nominated
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Awards December 6, 2021 Best Film The Green Knight Nominated
Best Director David Lowery Nominated
Best Cinematography Andrew Droz Palermo Nominated
Society of Composers & Lyricists Awards March 8, 2022 Outstanding Original Score for an Independent Film Daniel Hart Won
Critics’ Choice Super Awards March 17, 2022 Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Movie The Green Knight Nominated
Best Actor in a Science Fiction/Fantasy Movie Dev Patel Won
Best Actress in a Science Fiction/Fantasy Movie Alicia Vikander Nominated
Hugo Awards September 4, 2022 Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form David Lowery Nominated
Saturn Awards October 25, 2022 Best Fantasy Film The Green Knight Pending

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The Green Knight (2021) Movie Info

An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, THE GREEN KNIGHT tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men.
Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

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The Green Knight (2021) Pictures

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