David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) attempts to locate a 21st century version of morality in adapting the Arthurian poem. Consent, honor and selflessness prevail in Lowery’s version surprisingly well given that the source material is hundreds of years old. Though it succeeds in this measure Lowery’s film nonetheless disregards other aspects of the legend for seemingly no reason.
As originally written the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) is either a vessel of Morgan le Fay’s hatred for Camelot or the Lord (Joel Edgerton) in disguise. The roles these characters play in the early texts of the story are tied to certain moral lessons in chivalry that do not suit Lowery’s intentions. This is all well and good for the most part, but making Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) King Arthur’s nephew equates the character with Morgan le Fay’s son with Arthur; the evil Mordred. Lowery chooses to do this primarily to create his own Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) moment when Gawain faces death. Dramatically and narratively this fantasy sequence serves no real purpose except to reiterate themes and ideas that have been consistently conveyed throughout the film’s 131 minute run time.
The character of Essel (Alicia Vikander) seems to exist for the same purpose; to give weight to Gawain’s death fantasy. However, until that moment near the end of the film Essel has hardly been a character at all. What she has been permitted to do in Lowery’s film is to draw out Gawain’s much guarded vulnerability and immaturity. Effectively Essel is nothing more than a multi-purpose dramatic device. This is largely true of every female character who appears in the film. They are all either underdeveloped or relegated to serving as some expository device.
In true A24 tradition The Green Knight is a beautiful film even if the animated fox is questionable. Lowery effectively evokes a time and a place that exists in our collective imaginations that can be truly breathtaking. Ideally it would have been nice to see Lowery trust in his visuals more and construct the film to mirror the formal qualities of the poem more closely.