Pete’s Dragon (2016) is the best film to come out of Disney’s live-action remake trend, and is indeed the only one of the lineup that is unambiguously good. I’ve said this for years, and I’m astounded that the movie remains so criminally underappreciated. Likewise, David Lowery is a tremendously underrated filmmaker who deserves far more work, and The Green Knight is further proof why.
For those who need a refresher on Arthurian lore, Sir Gawain (here played by Dev Patel) is the son of Morgause. In the film, as in most Arthurian retellings, Morgause is conflated with her sister, the infamous sorceress Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury). And as Morgan is Arthur’s half-sister, this would make Gawain the nephew to King Arthur himself (here played by Sean Harris, alongside Kate Dickie as Guinevere).
(Side note: Yes, this means that Morgan le Fay — perhaps the most iconic nemesis of King Arthur and the architect of his eventual downfall — is here played by a woman of color. Make of that what you will.)
Anyway, the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” begins with the arrival of the enigmatic Green Knight (here voiced by Ralph Ineson), who challenges the Round Table to strike a blow against him. Whomever does so will lay permanent claim to his magnificent enchanted axe. The catch is that one year afterwards, whomever takes up the challenge must venture to the Green Chapel to meet with the Green Knight and receive an identical blow.
Gawain thinks he’s found a loophole and cuts off the Green Knight’s head, figuring he’ll be too dead in a year to strike a similar blow. Imagine everyone’s astonishment when the Green Knight picks up his own head and rides off, alive and well. So it is that a year later, Gawain must keep to his word and embark on a quest to the Green Chapel so the Green Knight can lop his head off.
Right off the bat, you might see a few problems with this story. And the film addresses them superbly.
First of all, as in the source text, it’s directly shown that the Green Knight’s arrival was secretly arranged by the witchcraft of Morgan le Fay. The implication is that she was trying to test, scare, and/or trap a knight of the Round Table, or perhaps even Arthur himself, and had no idea that it would be her own son caught up in all of this.
This brings me to the second point: It’s perfectly clear at the start of the film that Gawain himself isn’t really a proper knight. He’s only there at the Round Table because of his purely incidental relation to King Arthur, which means a lot to Arthur himself, as he has no direct heirs of his own. (That he knows of, but that’s another story.) In fact, when Gawain takes up the challenge despite having no weapon of his own, King Arthur lends him freaking Excalibur to take on the Green Knight. To put it lightly, that’s pretty darn cool.
Thirdly, Gawain takes up the challenge precisely because he feels like a mere man among legends. He has no great deeds of his own, no stories to tell of his valor or honor. Indeed, the film has a lot to say about what it means to be great and to achieve greatness. My personal favorite example is probably Arthur himself — because this iteration of the character is so much older than most, he’s more fragile than his reputation and former glory would suggest. And because our protagonist is such a close trusted blood relative of the Once and Future King, we get to see a more flawed, more mundane, more quintessentially human side of King Arthur than is typically shown.
Then Gawain lops the Green Knight’s head off and he becomes an overnight sensation. All of Camelot rises up in celebrating Sir Gawain who slew the Green Knight. Conveniently overlooking the facts that the Green Knight is still alive and Gawain himself is doomed to die for this deed. Thus the film makes a clear statement about the glorification of violence and the fallibility of legend. Yes, Gawain earned his fame through an act of incredible violence in protecting the king from a perceived harm, but there’s no honor or glory in how the act was accomplished, and Gawain himself is traumatized in a way that nobody else in Camelot (except maybe Arthur) bothers to perceive.
Time and again, the film shows how violence is relatively easy. And as in the source text, temptation to take the easy and comfortable path is a prominent theme as well. But this is a film about making the difficult choices, making sacrifices, and never settling for the easy way out, for that’s where true honor lies.
In the film (hell, even in the trailer), Gawain is confronted with the question of what he hopes to gain by taking this long and arduous quest to the Green Chapel, knowing full well that he’s going to die there. At numerous times during his quest, Gawain is given the opportunity to turn back home or to stop and live in comfort, but he never does. Why? Gawain only replies “honor”, but that’s too vague and we can get much more specific than that.
For one thing, it’s a matter of accountability. As portrayed in the film, the fight between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight isn’t really a fight at all. The Green Knight simply lays down his axe and offers up his neck to Gawain. He was no threat to anyone. Even by the rules of the game, Gawain only had to land a superficial scratch. But no, Gawain went straight for the neck. Even if the Green Knight magically survived that blow, Gawain still committed an act of unprovoked, unnecessary, straight-up murder. Justice demands severe punishment for such an act.
More importantly, even if Gawain dies at the Green Chapel, there are worse things than death. As Arthur’s closest relative and heir apparent to the throne, what kind of king would Gawain be if he always took the easy route and succumbed to every temptation? What kind of leader would he be if he clung to life and hid behind security all his days, refusing to take any kind of risk? What kind of king would he be if he demanded his subjects to pay his taxes and fight in his wars while making no sacrifice of his own?
There are a great many other details that make this all work, but spoilers prevent me from discussing much further. And believe me, I wish I could talk more about that glorious third act, a masterful work of visual storytelling with barely a word spoken, even if it veers from the source material in an underhanded way. Faring much better is the iconic green sash, here modified in a way that makes for a far stronger symbol. But I digress.
The bottom line is that Gawain is concerned about questing off to the Green Chapel to die. But as the film goes on, he comes to be far more concerned about the life he’ll have to look forward to if he doesn’t. As the poet said, who wants to live forever?
Death is of course another prominent theme, carried over from the source text. In point of fact, the theme of death is hard-wired directly into the character of the Green Knight himself. From his inception, the Green Knight has always been associated with plants and forest life, and the film goes a step further by making the Green Knight into a kind of ent-like figure, a lumbering anthropomorphic tree. Thus green is presented as a symbol of life, but as one character explains in a showstopping monologue, green is also the color of death. After all, green is the color of Earth, to which our corpses will inevitably return.
Pete’s Dragon proved that David Lowery has a jaw-dropping knack for forest photography, and it pays great dividends here. While the “prestige horror” presentation means that some shots are oppressively shadowed to the point of unintelligible, that gets to be less of a problem as the film goes on. In fact, the “prestige horror” presentation helps give the film a heightened feel appropriate for an epic work of legend, and it makes the supernatural elements a lot easier to swallow. The Green Knight himself looks amazing (helped superbly by Ralph Ineson’s rumbling voice), and there’s a CGI fox that looks pretty good.
Dev Patel anchors the film superbly, turning in what might very well be his most dynamic and strenuous performance to date. I applaud Sean Harris and Kate Dickie, both of whom present the expected charisma without any of the typical glamor. Erin Kellyman and Joel Edgerton are both welcome presences and they do their best with what they were given, though I’m sorry to say that both were underutilized. Barry Keoghan fares better, but not by much.
Still, the secret weapon of the supporting cast is undoubtedly Alicia Vikander. She appears early on as Essel, a common prostitute serving as Gawain’s love interest. One can imagine the conflict inherent in the illicit romance between the royal heir apparent and a common whore. But precisely because Essel has no royal connections in or out of Camelot, she provides Gawain with the kind of grounded perspective that he so badly needs.
Things get even crazier when Vikander reappears as the anonymous Lady, married to the Lord played by Edgerton. This Lady is a temptress who attempts to seduce Gawain, and her resemblance to Gawain’s faraway lover adds a new layer of discomfort to the proceedings. Alas, it also raises the suggestion that Gawain is resisting the Lady’s advantages to stay true to Essel, and not just because resisting a tryst with a married woman is the right thing to do. It muddies the temptation theme a bit.
That said, I’m disappointed that Vikander was the only actress playing two roles. An unnamed Young Queen shows up, played by Megan Tiernan, but she really should’ve been played by Erin Kellyman (instead cast as St. Winifred). Such a terrible missed opportunity there.
Oh, and there’s also the matter of the old sightless woman played by Helena Browne. I have no idea what she was supposed to be doing here. Then again, the character was similarly present and just as inexplicably useless in the source text, so whatever.
Overall, The Green Knight is fantastic. Though I might take issue with one or two details (the old sightless woman probably should’ve been removed for the sake of adaptation, and more really should’ve been done with Erin Kellyman and St. Winifred), this is overall a fine work that brings the ancient legend to vivid life. Major kudos for making the chivalric themes into something relatable for a modern audience, and I can’t say enough great things about that marvelous third act. Yes, I’m a little irked that arguably the most central antagonist in all of Arthurian lore is a woman of color, but Sarita Choudhury played the part well, and I’d say any accidental racism is far outweighed by Dev Patel’s superlative lead performance.
It’s stylish, it’s haunting, it’s a wonderful film all around. Definitely give this a look.