The Green Knight is a Brilliant and Unique Work of Adaptation

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

After 18 long months, Australian fans of filmmaker David Lowery were rewarded with the release of his critically-lauded feature The Green Knight (2021). The film has had a long Covid-delayed release, from a canceled SXSW debut in March 2020 – a date that feels weightier with each passing month – to theatres pulling the film from the calendar completely. US audiences were finally able to see the gorgeous and beguiling film in theatres in late July, but Australian audiences had to wait three more months before being able to see this wonderful film on Amazon Prime. 

Whether it was this long delay or the enveloping world Lowery has constructed here, but it felt so necessary to savour every moment on screen. Lowery has stated in interviews that this release delay allowed him to go back and edit large swathes of the film, not dissimilar to the eventual creation of Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant The Limey (1999) which involved the director re-editing the film after being dissatisfied after an early screening was shown. Whilst that film was recut with a focus on more experimental uses of editing, The Green Knight found its rhythm in its new cut, “allowing it to breathe” as Lowery describes. This is felt in the extended shots that have become the director’s signature, especially his use of a methodical 360° pan that never fails to draw the audience in (more on that later).

The Green Knight is a work of adaptation that keeps in the spirit of the original chivalric romance’s beguiling nature while also changing many details that are deceptively interesting that are sure to be picked over for years to come. There is a lot of meat on this bone that will propel you to return to the film often (a key bonus to having the film available on a streaming service.)

At the centre of our story is Gawain, a knight played by the wonderful Dev Patel with a mixture of youthful eagerness and unassuredness that propels every moment of the story, accepting the challenge from the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) during a Christmas day celebration in King Arthur’s round table court. Whether you’re familiar with the story or not, Lowery lays out the stakes with an assured pace, moving smoothly into Gawain’s quest for knightly honour, and to discover what that even means to him.

David Lowery is an auteur that works across genres and styles but is firmly rooted in the Del Toro camp of fairytale filmmakers. Whether it’s a grizzled career criminal, a lyrical film poem about the concept of haunting and death, or one of the best live-action Disney films of the 21st century about an orphan and a dragon, Lowery is able to breathe a sense of sincerity and beauty into his worlds, whilst never bogging down in the plots of his stories. The director’s assuredness throughout the film to be comfortable leaving the audience confused for stretches of Gawain’s quest, knowing the emotionality of the film work as a guide rope through the darkness, is wonderful and all too rare in modern American cinema.

The story unfolds patiently, following Gawain’s journey to understanding his own virtue and courage in the face of the inevitability of death. The Green Knight is a story about understanding and respecting the natural order of death and decay, themes that in less deft hands would become overbearing with a sense of mourning and sorrow. Lowery has said that he originally planned on the film to be under two hours but during his re-edit discovered it needed more time to breathe, but it feels necessary to the film’s ability to not be dragged down by its themes or become too oblique as to lose the momentum of the narrative that might’ve occurred if the film stretched into the 150-180 minute range that most period epics sit.

The titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) in The Green Knight

One of the most admirable and deeply compelling aspects of the film is Lowery’s use of visual storytelling and sound design in extended sequences that allow the audience to sit with and contemplate the themes and ideas being laid out, something that is quite unique to the cinematic form. In The Green Knight, this sequence arrives at the dead centre of the film as we find Gawain bound in a forest. We are shown this through a patient 360° pan as we see and hear the seasons change around the forest, as well as the growth of green moss consuming the forest, ultimately landing on the bones of a long-deceased Gawain. It invites the audience into being an active participant in the storytelling, asking you to put your own thoughts and emotions into the film that will develop and grow like moss on a forest bed over the duration of the film. Scenes like this can be seen throughout cinema, from the many films of Yasujirō Ozu, the procession scene in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), and in the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul that all allow the viewer to meditate on the ideas of the film while still very much experiencing it.

One of the best things in cinema is when a filmmaker, whether consciously or not, creates a double feature/trilogy in their filmography, thematically linking separate films that go deeper than just their aesthetic sensibilities. It’s impossible not to see the connections between Lowery’s previous two films A Ghost Story (2017) and The Old Man & The Gun (2018) with The Green Knight. All three features have a quest to find the meaning in death, not in trying to outwit it like a Bergman film, but in coming to terms with it and respecting it, both by meeting it head-on and from beyond the pale.

Crafting one of the best cake-and-eat-it ending sequences in recent memory, Lowery is able to convey a rich tapestry fit for the Arthurian legend with a sense of grace that is truly remarkable. While the author of the original chivalric romance is unknown, the author of this adaptation is firmly Lowery, an auteur that is building an extraordinary filmography. Lowery is one of the best American filmmakers to emerge in the last 10 years and is only a year away from the release of his return to Disney with an adaptation of Peter Pan, a dream pairing of storyteller and story that will not disappoint.

The Green Knight is on Amazon Prime now.

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