The mighty hero of The Green Knight – Gawain (Dev Patel) – is not exactly mighty, nor is he a hero. He spends his nights drunk in a brothel. On a Christmas morning, he is woken up by his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). His mother (Sarita Choudhury) is an enchantress, and his uncle is King Arthur (Sean Harris). Gawain, though related to them, possesses no magical strength nor is he regarded with legendary status. His journey is set in motion during a feast at the Round Table, which is interrupted by an enigmatic Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). He proposes a game: Any knight who lands a blow on him would receive his axe. But that same knight must also seek him out after one year at the Green Chapel, six nights to the north, and bend his knee to receive a similar strike in return.
Gawain heroically steps forward. His veneer of confidence cracks as he slowly approaches the Green Knight to decapitate him. But he goes through with the attack, which does not kill the Green Knight but makes Gawain a celebrity. His deed is recounted to the civilians using puppets, but it’s the circle (containing colourful drawings) behind the puppets that steals your attention. This is no accident considering that David Lowery‘s film is full of circular motifs. Images and ideas (and sometimes characters) present themselves repeatedly in new forms (or light).
The most visible example of this comes when Gawain encounters a boy on a battlefield. At first, he appears to be a lost, poor soul looking for his brother’s body (and any precious items he can find on the dead bodies). When we meet him again after a few minutes, it’s revealed that he is actually a cunning thief. Along with his two other partners, he ties Gawain’s hands and legs and steals his horse. The camera moves clockwise to show the skeleton of Gawain and then rotates anti-clockwise to show him alive. Apart from being another instance of the circular motif, this scene exhibits the fate of Gawain if he decides to do nothing about his situation. There comes a moment when the camera turns the world upside down (the sky occupies the lower part of the screen, while the ground is situated on the upper part). When Gawain stays at a castle near the Green Chapel, the Lady living there paints a portrait of him upside down. Moreover, the Lady looks exactly like Essel.
Circles can be found in objects like King Arthur’s crown. Even the heads are nothing but a circle, and they are important in The Green Knight. In the opening image, we see Gawain sitting on the throne when suddenly his head catches fire. The game between Gawain and the Green Knight involves cutting each other’s heads. Gawain comes across a spirit who asks him to retrieve her head from the water. When Gawain’s mother performs magic during the Round Table scene, she blindfolds herself. Later, in the castle near the Green Chapel, we see a blindfolded woman. In fact, the entire meeting of Gawain and Green Knight again after a year is like a circle.
The above points clarify that the movie geek side of you would be instantly interested in The Green Knight. But how is it otherwise? Well, if you have watched Lowery’s 2017 supernatural drama A Ghost Story, you know this would be an unusual film. Lowery’s world is populated with both humans and supernatural entities. In A Ghost Story, a ghost remained in his house for years while the human residents kept on changing. In The Green Knight, the fantasy element is profoundly expanded to build a beautiful and other-worldly society where sorceresses, spirits, giants, and bizarre creatures exist in parallel with kings, queens, knights, and commoners.
Yet, the most spellbinding aspect of Lowery’s world lies in the way the two opposite sides indirectly help one another achieve a streak or reach a destination. The ghost in A Ghost Story attains freedom after unfolding a piece of paper on which his wife had scribbled some words (we are not told what). In The Green Knight, Gawain would have never developed courage if he had not been challenged by the Green Knight (the fear disappears when he accepts to take a blow). Perhaps, Lowery wants us to shed our worries regarding the supernatural and welcome the unknown with open arms. They look different from the outside, but they are like us from the inside. Now that’s a thought I am ready to hold as a reality.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.