A24’s The Green Knight definitely looks like a strong awards season contender, but it already deserves to win something for the film’s clever method of adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic by recentering its entire marketing campaign around the ominous line “One year hence…” – which now refers to both the Green Knight’s warning to Sir Gawain that sets the entire story into motion, and the rather meta aspect of the film being pushed back from its May 2020 release date to a new one at the end of July, 2021. A little more than one year hence, but close enough.
The Green Knight‘s new full-length trailer, released today, should hopefully give general audiences some idea of what they’re in for, while piquing the interest of fantasy nerds, Arthurian legend lovers, and Medieval history buffs (a.k.a. me, me, and also me). The Green Knight should be of special interest to Tolkienverse fans who are at all interested in J.R.R. Tolkien’s scholarly work outside of Middle-earth – which included translating the poem of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight into Modern English on his own, and collaborating with his good friend and Viking Club cofounder E.V. Gordon to compile and annotate a Middle English edition of the text in 1925. That arcane bit of information is absolutely nonessential to understanding or enjoying this particular adaptation of The Green Knight, but it’s fun regardless.
I can’t speak to the quality of the adaptation just yet, but one thing I love about this trailer is how weird and macabre it is. It’s clearly leaning into the Celtic mythological influences on Arthurian legend, which means everything from a herd of giants to a talking fox (oh yeah, and the Green Knight himself: a towering man-tree hybrid who carries around his own decapitated head). Andrew Droz Palermo’s rich and vibrant cinematography is perfectly suited to this tale, which is built on layers of symbolism and allegory hidden in every innocuous detail – all obviously meaningful, despite their original and definitive meaning being unclear and a subject of heated debate.
Some scholars argue that the poem is a deconstruction (either serious or semi-satirical) of Medieval chivalry, using the conflict between the Green Knight (quite literally representing nature at its most primal and chaotic) and Sir Gawain (a supposedly virtuous knight of King Arthur’s court) to comment on chivalry’s inability to restrain humankind’s darkest impulses. So…basically Amazon Prime’s gory superhero satire The Boys, but aimed at knights – who, if you think about it, made themselves out to be the superheroes of their era. Just based on the trailers, that particular reading of the poem appears to be the central theme of The Green Knight.
Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, but the film’s cast also includes Alicia Vikander and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s Erin Kellyman – who’d you think the trailer would spotlight at least a little given her recent boost of popularity off the hit Marvel Disney+ series. Unfortunately, I suspect her role will be very small. Sir Gawain And The Green Knight has a lot of things to say about the dynamic between masculinity and femininity in the age of chivalry (though again, things which no modern scholar can interpret with any degree of certainty), but it’s too early to say if the film will dive into any of that, or give the women in Gawain’s story more prominent roles.
Hopefully, The Green Knight does really well at the box-office as well as with critics, so that Hollywood will start to take more of an interest in Arthurian and Celtic myth, after essentially reducing the former to “knights in shining armor” and “the sword in the stone”, and simply ignoring the latter outright for years. Next stop; Cú Chulainn, Finn McCool, and the Morrígan!
The epic tale of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, one of the most legendary stories of chivalry, honor and valor to come out of King Arthur’s court, is absolutely not the sort of thing one would expect to be turned into a surreal horror/dark fantasy thriller, but you know what? It just might work.
Dev Patel stars in the first trailer for this spooky retelling of the Medieval legend, which tells the story of a young knight in Camelot who is challenged to a duel by the terrifying Green Knight, and has to prove his worthiness through a series of tests. The best version of the epic, naturally, is the translation by English author J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m not sure which version director David Lowery is drawing from, or whether he’s taking bits and pieces of all the best translations and then adding mostly new content, but he appears to be leaning into the story’s pagan origins (pagan horror is a genre that has just recently begun to flourish, with the success of Midsommar, and pagan Medieval horror is a genre I don’t know if anybody has touched upon yet), and using this story to highlight just how many Christian traditions and legends are rooted in paganism. At least, I’m guessing that’s why we see kings wearing burning halos in this trailer, and Christian Medieval life threatened by apparitions, spectral visitors and horrors in the dark.
The Green Knight himself, Sir Gawain’s sworn enemy, is a sight to behold: he wields a huge battle-axe, and has a face carved from wood, with a bristly, twiggy beard. Retellings of the tale have always struggled to define what he is: Tolkien called him the “most difficult character” in the entire poem, and other scholars have alternately described him as a version of the Green Man of Celtic mythology, the Devil, an amalgamation of the Greek god Hades and Jesus, or a character rife with homosexual symbolism. So, um…take your pick, I guess?
So will you be going to see this creepy take on a Camelot classic? And what do you think of Dev Patel as Sir Gawain? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
In the eyes of history buffs, The King will probably be a decent, if boringly conventional retelling of a fascinating story from the vaults of Medieval history. For fans of Shakespeare, this interpretation of the bard’s work, watered down in the telling, will probably be a bland disappointment. But in my opinion, the movie, while not particularly fresh or exciting, is worth a watch merely for the performances from Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, accompanied by Nicholas Britell’s beautiful score. And if you find yourself drifting off in the first half of the movie, with its interminable gray color palette, dreary dialogue and half-hearted brutality – simply fast forward to when Pattinson shows up about an hour in, at which point the movie finally sheds some of its solemn trappings, develops a faint splash of color, and actually gets interesting.
The story itself is classic: the brief, tumultuous reign of King Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) of England, who stormed and nearly conquered France in 1415. But with two versions of the story out there – the historical account, and Shakespeare’s heavily fictionalized version – the film goes for the least interesting option: trying to blend the two into one coherent whole, using historical realism to set the scene, but sticking faux-Shakespearean dialogue into the mouths of its actors, who, to their credit, actually make it sound halfway decent – up to a point. Director David Michôd and writer and star Joel Edgerton haven’t made anywhere near enough additions or alterations to the story, and as a result The King often feels like it’s treading on well-worn ground – or rather, sinking in the muddy field of Agincourt, weighed down by plate armor and brooding plot. To put it simply, the movie isn’t particularly fun, and it doesn’t have much room to breathe. But what it lacks in originality of voice, it makes up for with the casting of two stellar performers.
Chalamet embodies the young king of England with a stone-cold solemnity that sets the tone for the whole movie – the rest of the movie, however, fails to achieve the same balance of neutrality and watchability as Chalamet does consistently. Rather, the movie itself begins to fall away and fade into fog, while Chalamet’s Henry becomes more clearly defined with each passing minute, until, in its closing scenes, he is the only life it has left. And what life he possesses! Typically seen as a dewy-eyed Hollywood heartthrob, Chalamet is here a gaunt, pale figure with leering eyes that disguise a heart longing for peace in his time – he is at times inspiring (as when he rallies his men for battle on the morn of Agincourt, using dialogue that is nowhere near as impressive as the St. Crispin’s Day speech his character utters in Shakespeare’s play but still sounds good because it’s Timothée Chalamet), or terrifying (as when he confronts his dying father in the latter’s bedchamber, ripping the sheets away from the bed, letting the old man shiver and tremble as the life slips from his body). But he is always a commanding presence onscreen, never rivaled by any of his castmates until Pattinson enters the picture, challenging Chalamet’s calm with a startlingly zany performance that turns The King into one of 2019’s most unexpectedly weird movies.
Pattinson, another actor trying to reshape his image in the public conscious, is a terrifying/hysterically funny revelation in his role as the Dauphin of France. Other reviewers are conflicted about his portrayal of the character, saying he ruins the serious nature of the film, or, alternatively, is its one saving grace. A callous, sadistic idiot, the Dauphin somehow manages to seem like an absolutely credible and formidable force even while being an unabashed peacock, strutting about in fancy black armor, laughing like a maniac and grinning dumbly at his own offensive jokes. But while I personally loved Pattinson’s portrayal, I can easily understand why critics can’t decide whether they love him or hate him – his performance is so deliberately exaggerated that it feels like it must be saying something, or attempting to: but what? If he’s merely trying to insult the French, then at least he’s made Shakespeare happy.
(Something that struck me in Pattinson’s first scene in The King, while he was busy talking about how he wanted to drain Henry’s body of its blood and bury it under a tiny French tree, was how happy I am that he will be soon be the DCEU’s new Batman: immediately after thinking that, Pattinson turned his head in such a way that it almost appeared that he had elf-ears for a fleeting moment – and that, coupled with his long blond wig, impressive eyebrows and sinuous physicality, made me gasp, pause the movie and go on Twitter to express my regret that Pattinson had not been cast as Sauron in Amazon Prime’s upcoming Lord Of The Rings prequel series. I’m sorry I have to bring everything back to LOTR, but this is something that I cannot now unsee and cannot ever forgive Pattinson or Amazon Prime for: just think of the beautiful young Sauron that might have been, gifted with Pattinson’s charismatic craziness! It would have been perfect).
The supporting cast is okay, though the only other standout is Ben Mendelsohn as the aging King Henry IV. Joel Edgerton’s Falstaff is made out to be the film’s Everyman archetype, but the character is boring and lifeless (and Edgerton’s performance is so tired that it’s hard to tell whether his yawns are in-character or not). Then there’s the Archbishop of Canterbury (Andrew Havill), who I feel deserves a dishonorable mention simply because of how insufferably annoying he managed to be in the five minutes of screen time he possessed. As for female characters – there are a grand total of three. Lily Rose-Depp is merely okay in the role of Catherine of Valois, who only appears in the film’s last twenty minutes and has one scene of importance; her performance is most notable for the fact that Catherine claims at the outset that she can’t speak English and then proceeds to do so anyway for the rest of the scene.
The film suffers greatly from its muted color palette, and cinematography that is, for the most part, drab and uninspiring. The sole exception is the scene in which Henry V’s forces besiege the castle of Harfleur, using massive trebuchets to launch flaming missiles over the fortress walls: who doesn’t love a good trebuchet? They’re far more interesting than catapults, in my honest opinion. And filming them in action also allows for plenty of interesting camera-work, as The King proves beyond a doubt. Beyond that, the film has nothing going for it in terms of visual splendor – there just isn’t any. The splash of somber green we get from the field of Agincourt is a brief respite from the damp grays and browns of Merry Old England – but even that is quickly transformed into a melee of upturned mud, and the filth of violence.
For history buffs (myself included) the legendary battle of Agincourt is what will keep you watching until the end of the movie: and it’s teased in a big fashion, with a single line of dialogue delivered by Pattinson’s Dauphin in one of the most hilariously exaggerated French accents you’ll hear outside of a Loony Tunes sketch, guaranteed to make your skin crawl in anticipation of the inevitable – “Let us make famous that field out there, this little village of Agincourt that will forever mark the sight of your callow disgrace.” I’m glad I watched The King for that line alone – and thankfully the ensuing battle delivers exactly what the film needs: it’s brutally epic, chaotic, and realistic. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to drown in mud, then The King is the film for you!
An additional incentive to watch the movie (beyond mud-drownings) is the score by Nicholas Britell, which is stirring and appropriately ominous.
All in all, did I have fun watching The King? No, not exactly. I don’t think it tells the story of Henry V better than any history book can – certainly not better than Shakespeare (and I don’t typically praise Shakespeare). But I do think it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of either Chalamet or Pattinson, or want to check out a “highbrow” sampling of their work. Just don’t expect too much from the movie itself – it may be called The King, but its crown belongs firmly to its stars.