The title of David Lowrey’s The Green Knight, now available for online rental after spending some time exclusively in theaters, strikes me as particularly important. The film adapts Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th-century poem by an unknown author, and takes at least the bones of its story: Gawain (Dev Patel), young nephew to the legendary King Arthur (Sean Harris), takes up a challenge from a mysterious, green-colored knight (Ralph Ineson) and embarks on a quest that tests his chivalric mettle. Lowrey’s film includes many deviations from the medieval poem, among which is the truncated name, raising the question of whether this version of Gawain’s tale still belongs to him. Who is this Green Knight that claims sole ownership of this story?
Formulating an answer requires treating this film as a feature-length exploration of the meanings baked into the color green. The most straightforward option would be to attribute the title to the verdant visitor. Ineson’s magical knight, representative of the frequently stunning production design, looks as if made from wood; the sounds that accompany his movements are those of a wind-blown forest, groaning boughs and rustling leaves. He is nature personified, a life-force so powerful that when Gawain answers his challenge by slicing clean through his neck, he picks up his head and rides out of Camelot, laughing maniacally. When the terms of the agreement bind Gawain to meet him one year later to get as good as he gave, that life becomes death – the Lady (one of two roles for Alicia Vikander) Gawain encounters on his journey even says as much, musing that human civilization is nothing but a futile, temporary struggle to keep green overgrowth at bay. It seems only natural, then, that the Green Knight has eclipsed Gawain’s role in the story over the last few centuries.
Conversely, the title could refer to Gawain himself. He is young, unproven, and unsure of his place at the king’s side, choosing to meet his challenger after his uncle advises him to seek greatness. In this respect, he is green, a novice at knighthood – though whether Gawain is in fact a knight is greatly contested in Lowrey’s telling. A scavenger (Barry Keoghan) picking at a corpse-ridden battlefield observes that he looks like one, but Gawain denies himself the title. He is drawn to its privilege and prestige, but repelled by its restrictive, violent reality, a conflict that comes through in Patel’s performance. He struggles more than you’d expect to be worthy of having his name in the title, or to be thought of as a hero, uncertain whether the chivalric life is one he actually wishes to lead. For us to consider him the story’s true Green Knight, we must rob him of this choice, and shape our interpretation of the film in the process.
I picked on this smallest of details to illustrate how The Green Knight, rich with ways to be understood, blossoms under a scrutinous eye. The film offers many angles from which to interpret Gawain’s quest, and with a bit of deep thought, each will spill out into the others, resonating with choices in plot and casting and design and performance until it feels like you have a grasp on what it all means – only for it to fall apart when you realize the opposite of your reading is just as possible. The completeness of this feeling that Lowrey achieves is rare in any artwork, and is to be cherished. Perhaps not as emotionally transporting as it could have been, it offers a decidedly variable viewing experience, and its particular rhythm will push away some while enrapturing others. Whichever camp you fall into, I recommend returning to it, at least in your mind’s eye. Already in the short time since I saw it, I have found it immensely rewarding.