*. It’s a great story, which is part of the reason why it’s stuck around for seven hundred years, with roots that go back even further. Even reading the original poem there are lots of moments that have a contemporary feel to them. For example, the way the Green Knight’s head, when it’s cut off, goes bouncing around the floor of Arthur’s court, so that the assembled knights have to kick it away from them. That’s a funny bit. I don’t know why they cut it out of this movie version.
*. I don’t think it’s because writer-director (and editor and producer) David Lowery wanted to go all po-faced and serious. Not when the title is broken up by an ellipsis that is only closed with the end credits. This isn’t Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, but it’s a movie that had to be aware of being made in the shadow of those earlier medieval quest fantasies and that wasn’t going to work if it had just gone for laughs.
*. Instead I think Lowery just wanted to weird it up. There are, in turn, two further points I’d make about this.
*. First, it seems to be a hallmark of the current generation of auteur filmmakers to go down this road. What do productions like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, and this movie have in common? They’re beautiful to look at but delight in not having any clear direction. This is something I’ve gone on about many times before, the bottom line being that the technical skill in things like cinematography and art design have never been greater in movies today but the writing is fatally handicapped by a reach for profundity that more often ends up just being pretentious.
*. The second point has to do with the changes Lowery made to the story. Now I don’t have anything against writers taking a very free hand with literary adaptations, especially when the source material is this old. But it leads to the question of why Lowery was drawn to this story in the first place when he didn’t want much to do with it.
*. The poem is transformed here, but I kept asking myself to what end. I suppose the main thing is that the whole plot is directed by Gawain’s mother who may be Morgan le Fay though that name is never mentioned. Gawain’s mother isn’t a character at all in the poem. That’s a big change. And for what purpose? Lowery: “It became a drama about a mother and a son in a way that I hadn’t intended. . . . All of a sudden, I was writing about my own relationship with my mom, and the fact that I stayed, I lived under her roof for far longer than I should have. I had failure-to-launch syndrome, and she eventually had to force me out.”
*. This is an interesting subject to address, but why use a medieval poem where it isn’t a theme at all as the vehicle? Isn’t that just making a lot of extra work for yourself?
*. Then there’s Alicia Vikander as Gawain’s girlfriend, another character not in the poem. She doubles as the Lady and also appears as a nude giant. Why? Because it looks cool? Because it’s something that makes you go “Hmm” or “What’s up with that?”
*. Or take the scene where the Queen has to go into a trance to read the Green Knight’s challenge. Why? It seems a really awkward way of presenting things, and reduces the Green Knight to a role as little more than a prop, but it looks neat when the Queen’s eyes roll back in her head.
*. Then there are all the interludes. Gawain meets Saint Winifred and retrieves her head. What did this have to do with anything? Or the talking CGI fox (which looks ridiculous) whose role and identity escaped me completely. Or Barry Keoghan (never a welcome presence on screen) as a Scavenger who steals Gawain’s green girdle. Why did Lowery include this character? Because, he tells us, it was meant as an allusion to Barry Lyndon. Again: OK, but why? What does any of this have to do with Barry Lyndon?
*. Finally there’s the resistance (also in Annhilation and The Lighthouse) to turn all coy and leave the audience guessing as to what is actually happening. Did Gawain dream the whole thing in the forest? Is he alive or dead at the end? Shrug.
*. The cast work out well. I love Dev Patel’s performance, and Sarita Choudhury as his mom. Alicia Vikander’s accent had me scratching my head, but she’s Swedish. Sean Harris is a bit disturbed as Arthur, but I guess he has paternity issues.
*. And it all looks great, except for the fox and the Green Knight himself who they decided to make into Groot. Because Groot is popular with kids? I don’t know.
*. I went through phases watching this movie. I was in a good mood going into it, then hated it, and finally ended up splitting the difference. Lowery uses the poem as a springboard to go off and do his own thing, some of which is kind of interesting but most of which left me throwing up my hands. Stephen Weeks actually directed two previous adaptations of Sir Gawain of the Green Knight, in 1973 under the same title and 1983 as Sword of the Valiant. The latter is now widely held to be a joke, but I actually have fond memories of it decades after I caught it on TV. Will The Green Knight last as long for all its better production values and auteurial idiosyncrasies? I wouldn’t be betting on it.