The Green Knight Is A Fantasy Classic For Its Magic Alone

Magic is a staple of the fantasy genre, and The Green Knight uses it to convey meaning while crafting an atmosphere unique amongst it's peers.
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Dev Patel Green Knight Gawain
Source: themarysue.com

A spoiler-free review of The Green Knight

The Green Knight, directed by David Lowrey and starring Dev Patel is a coming of age story based on the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The film takes quite a few liberties with the source material but keeps the core idea of a less than extraordinary young man attempting to prove his valor after accepting a competition with a supernatural giant, all the while struggling far more than the average Arthurian hero. 

When I took my seat in the theatre I had a decent idea of what was in store. The poem the movie is based on is not a particularly action-filled one, instead, it is more focused on the ideas of honesty, duty, and the morals of the knighthood.

For the most part, the movie does this as well while elaborating on such things in added scenes absent from the poem and subverting more than a few Arthurian tropes.

Overall the movie plays out much like a morality play, building situations and characters meant to extoll certain virtues and showing Gawain either growing as a character or keeping to his flawed ways and thus being chastised for it. 

Online the movie seems to be loved by many and loathed by many. The common thread of the loathing seems to amount to false expectations that the movie would be a typical action-adventure fantasy film filled with swordfights and battles rather than an exploration of growth, indecisiveness, and mortal existentialism that the film actually is.  

So if you are expecting a fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings, look elsewhere. But if you enjoy arthouse aesthetics, a slow-burning plot, and dreamlike fantasy then The Green Knight is a perfect movie for you. 

The fact that this film is so polarizing seems to be par for the course considering many of A24’s releases in the past, which are exalted by many as visionary film making and panned by just as many calling them pretentious snobbery too often reliant on overindulgent arthouse imagery.    

In my opinion, The Green Knight is a good movie but can be rightly criticized in a few scenes for offering up admittedly gorgeous sequences that serve little to no purpose other than being appealing to the eye.

I say this as someone who is genuinely fond of A24’s and arthouse aesthetics overall, but there was one scene in particular that after the movie was over I found myself wondering why it was included other than to have something for the trailer. 

Arguably the two strongest aspects of the film are the visuals and Dev Patel’s performance as Gawain. But the weakest part of the film is the pacing which sometimes teeters on being unnecessarily languid. Overall I would say that the film is good, beautifully crafted, and grows more interesting the more you ponder what it is trying to say.

Giants The Green Knight Dev Patel
Source: indiewire.com

Why The Green Knight should be considered a fantasy classic

While I keep to my opinion that the film overall is good rather than great, I also believe that it deserves to be considered a fantasy classic. While it is a beautifully crafted piece, it also handles magic in a way very unique amongst the majority of fantasy films. The magic in The Green Knight is a very unexplained force, that blends reality and the surreal.

The film’s surrealism begins immediately with a shot of Gawain crowned as a king sitting completely still on the throne. A narrator begins to talk of the struggles of rulership, and Gawain’s head bursts into flames.

This scene is crucial because it establishes the film’s heavy use of surrealistic imagery and through the scenes imagery the central conflict of the film. This conflict is Gawain’s struggle with personal growth and what is to be expected of him. 

From that point forward whenever something magical takes place, the film uses unconventional cinematography and or surreal imagery, but the surreal is also an indicator for the film explaining Gawain’s mental state.

For example, when Gawain is invited to a Christmas celebration at King Arthur’s court the shots are relatively conventional. After talking with Arthur about how he feels about being with the legendary knights of the round table, Queen Guevivier says that it will only be a matter of time until he proves himself a great and honorable knight. Then once the Green Knight appears the cinematography noticeably changes. 

Guinevere takes the knight’s letter and her voice changes as whatever spell was written into it cause her to read it with a booming voice that sounds like a prophecy promising to prove greatness and honor.

Cinematography wise the scene is a single close up and the lighting shifts from a realistic color pallet to one being drenched completely in red. While relatively tame in comparison to other scenes in the movie the juxtaposition is nonetheless noticeable between the presence of magic in the scene and before its appearance.

What is also noticeable is that the magic spell affirms what Guenivere promised would come and what Gawain needs to grow as an individual and join the ranks of the other men of Arthur’s court.

This starts the trend of magic not only embodying the change that Gawain needs to embrace but showing Gawain's mental state. In the letter reading scene, as much as the prophecy promises all that Gawain needs it is presented in a way that is more menacing than exciting.

This reinforces what Gawain has expressed in several scenes before this, that he isn’t ready for the responsibility of knighthood. So when the chance to prove himself is presented it is perfectly fitting that it would sound equal parts horrific and heroic.

Magic plays this role time and time again, presenting itself through spectacle to enhance the character growth of Gawain. Even in the scene where Gawain has an encounter with giants, in my opinion, the scene most easily ridiculed for overindulgence,  the magic can be read with this role in mind and hold far more meaning than it does at first.

The ability for the film’s magic to serve as both spectacle and subtext is an incredibly clever usage of magic in a fantasy film.

Not to mention the surreal atmosphere the magical elements create, gives The Green Knight a whimsical gritty tone that perfectly captures a sense of myth and legend all too often lacking in Arthurian films and even many movies based on other myths.

And just like the source material, the film is all the richer for interpretation due to the magic and myth’s sub concise stylings.

If humanity was left to our own devices we would probably just eat chicken and watch movies, I know I would.

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