The Green Knight: An old tale, retold for modern times

Early in their studies, fledgling archaeologists are often confronted by this classic dilemma: in a world of finite resources and where time’s arrow only marches forward, what use is there in preserving the past?

Answers to the quandary vary, but the most common would be something like this: to learn more about who we are presently, and who we may very well become. In this similar vein, A24’sThe Green Knight resurfaces an artifact of yore, appropriating its characters and devices for moral lessons more relevant to today. It’s an overall satisfying reimagining, rife with apt performances and impressive production, though it can at times fall victim to the “arthouse powerhouse” studio’s worst instincts.

Dev Patel as Gawain. The young man’s quest for glory in a medieval world faces him off against challenges with far more modern sensibilities. Photo: A24

The Green Knight is the story of Gawain (Dev Patel), son of Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) and nephew to King Arthur (Sean Harris). During a Christmas feast held at the Round Table, the mystical Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) intrudes on the king’s court and offers this challenge: that any knight may strike him, but in one year’s time that same man must meet the Green Knight in his own domain so that a like blow may be reciprocated. Filled with vague ambitions for glory, Gawain accepts this “Christmas game” and beheads the knight. In a twist, the knight proceeds to pick up his head and exits Arthur’s palace, mockingly reminding Gawain of his promise. What follows is Gawain’s journey toward the knight’s Green Chapel—an adventure fraught with danger and challenge.

As an adaptation, The Green Knight plays fast-and-loose with the key elements of its source material. Gawain is not yet a knight as in the original romance, his mother has changed from Morgause to Morgan, and among other things Gawain’s encounters along the way are fleshed out in far greater detail. These points might frustrate some Arthurian purists, but given Dev Patel’s casting in a traditionally white role, this movie was never theirs to begin with.

The Green Knight is less a replication and more a remixing, fitting this centuries-old story of outdated chivalric virtue for an audience educated in rape culture, toxic masculinity, rapid industrialization, and, yes, even systemic racism. Writer-director David Lowery presents these topics with a deft hand, sometimes so heavy in subtext that even the most minimally of expository details are omitted (did you notice Merlin?), all for the sake of a compelling story of a man who must reassess and realize the futile and vapid quality of that which he values most.

No, this film does not take for granted the intelligence of its viewers, but Lowery (who also worked as the film’s editor) appears to have taken the project far too seriously, rendering this theatrical edit an at-times dense and hyperactive mess. While from scene-to-scene cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s psychedelic compositions remain stand-outs, the shot-to-shot cuts can come too far too often, giving the picture no room to breathe.

But when the film does decide to cycle its lungs, it is most certainly a life-giving blast of oxygen. The production is astounding, each of its performances solid, and its themes will have the bards singing for centuries more.

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