Now streaming–The Green Knight, a retelling that doesn’t improve on the original

Review by C.J. Bunce

If mood makes the movie, The Green Knight has a shot at winning.  Unfortunately, movies need something more to make them worth watching.  Even if you add good performances by the likes of Alicia Vikander, Erin Kellyman, Sarita Croudhury, Sean Harris, Barry Keoghan, Ralph Ineson, and Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, and a compelling Randy Edelman meets Philip Glass musical score, the story needs to follow general storytelling conventions and make some sort of sense.  Billed as an adaptation–it’s not–this is actually an effort to retell an admittedly imperceptible medieval story, which would have made more sense to its contemporary audience.  Writer-director David Lowery (The Old Man & the Gun, Peter Pan & Wendy) makes a good effort at it–he’s good at keeping the audience hanging on for the ride, and at least nobody pronounces the lead’s name Guh-wane, but count this as a retelling worth passing on.  It’s streaming free now on Pluto.

Slow-simmering is a generous description of the first half of the movie.  In evoking a medieval setting cheaply, Lowery relies on forests and stone.  And it works.  The music helps.  By any measure The Green Knight is much better than the bad movie adaptation Excalibur–but that’s not saying much.  The name of the author of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is lost to time (the movie mischaracterizes it as being written anonymously).  It follows a young knight in King Arthur’s Round Table who steps forward to accept a challenge on Christmas from a strange green apparition confronting the King.  The message in a roundabout way is one of honor, but the poem has gaps, which Lowery tries to fill in.  His best efforts describe unwritten encounters as Sir Gawain must confront the green fellow at a green chapel a year later.

Lowery introduces a smartly rendered CG fox who speaks, along with a realm of CG giants in his trials.  Vikander doubles as Gawain’s girlfriend (she’s hardly recognizable and sports an odd British accent) and the wife of a landowner he meets on his journey played by Edgerton.  Kellyman plays St. Winifred in another trial.  Harris’s King evokes Viggo Mortenson’s Aragorn, and Ineson delivers a good voice (and great mask) as the Green Knight.  Keoghan seems to be playing the same character he played in The Banshees of Inisherin.  Patel carries the movie as the lead.  He’s charismatic and makes a great hero.

Lowery changes the meaning of key elements from the source material.  The effect of a quid pro quo with the couple at the castle gets muddled and the entire ending neither follows the original story nor improves on it.  The ending also just makes no sense, resulting in more questions and an unsatisfying wrap up.  A post credit scene confounds even more.  A few wasted scenes are added to net the R rating, but most of it is PG.

The cinematography at times is vivid and clever.  Unfortunately half the time scenes are too poorly lit to tell what is happening at all.

Curiously, randomly, these people with costumes that aren’t historical get a scene at the end:

Who are they?  Why are they there?  Nobody knows.

Lowery would have done better to write his own fantasy and scrap the adaptation idea.  The Green Knight arrived in theaters in 2021 after pandemic delays.  It didn’t get good distribution by not being a studio film, but also because it falls in the category of strange films like The Wicker Man (which has its 50th anniversary this year) that distributors and marketers don’t know what to do with.

The Green Knight is rightly relegated to free movie status.  It’s streaming now on Pluto.

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