Recent cinema has been marked by its reckoning with myths and legends: some based in truth, some overt fabrications, some lost to time, some painfully traceable. Spencer tackles the Royal Family; Dune brings a science fiction of epic proportions to life; Nomadland questions the American Dream; Undine updates medieval folklore; and No Time to Die and West Side Story hearken to the glory days of their genres (to very different ends). The Green Knight, David Lowery’s revision of the anonymously written Old English poem, reaches back to Arthuriana. Here, after opening on a flame-headed vision speaking on the siege of Troy, the legendary hero Gawain is introducedunbathed, half-naked, ornery farmyard animals outside his window, awoken by his prostitute lover in a brothel on Christmas morning. He is so very young. 

As our hero chases Essel (Alicia Vikander) and searches for his clothes, Lowery’s camera follows the still-tipsy Gawain, stumbling through the half-lit halls and merry bodies. Another woman calls from an unseen room, asking if he’s a knight yet. “Better hurry up!” she teases, when he replies in the negative. Gawain is flippant and charming: “I’ve got time, I’ve got lots of time.”

Myths, however, are locked in time, and even radical revisions carry the baggage of centuries. It is known that Gawain will go to his uncle, King Arthur (Sean Harris), as he holds a Christmas court. It is known that a mysterious Green Knight (here made equally of wood and flesh) will appear and challenge one of Arthur’s number to a friendly Christmas game: a blow struck on the visitor, to be returned in a year’s time. And it is known that Gawain, who does not yet have any claims to greatness, will accept. In folly, incredulity and panicked bravado, he will strike off the challenger’s head. And the Green Knight will pick up his head and remind Gawain of his promise, galloping away as stunned silence gives way to cheers from the surrounding crowd. Gawain alone remains rooted, silent, finally grim. What follows is, as the film’s themed chapters remind us, a Too Quick Year. 

The Green Knight 2 (1)

Courtesy of: A24/Amazon Studios

The Green Knight was originally slated to premiere at SXSW in March 2020 but was eventually pushed to Autumn 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, writer and director David Lowery spent six months re-editing the film into something “much better”: “I found the affection I needed to cut it with love in my heart instead of disappointment and hate.” When it premiered—a film its creator was happy with—the world had seen a year and a half of catastrophe, with time still marching on.

Dev Patel’s Gawain is all flailing limbs and fists, choosing boozing and brawling over a clear-eyed look at his fate until the first snow begins to fall. He intently swears he is not a knight—to buy him time, to excuse stumbling into his mother’s house and into the washing bowl, oblivious of his royal uncle’s presence. Yet, he remains obsessed with the idea of greatness that he must live up to at the probableunavoidablecost of his life. When he believes he must behave properly, a coldness and fussiness come across him. This lands him in trouble, first with a rogue on a desolate battlefield, then with a Lord who takes pity on the lost traveller. He even bungles a chance at true chivalry, asking for a favour before helping the ghost of a rape victim recover her severed head. When she lashes out, Gawain’s fragmented, surface-level understanding of connection is glaringly obvious. He is young, still learning, and already out of time. 

The Green Knight

Courtesy of: A24/Amazon Studios

The uneasy coexistence of man on the earth looms large throughout The Green Knight. Camelot rises in stone from marshy land; battles churn earth into mud pits; giants march towards an incomprehensible purpose; and the Lord returns with large game as he tells tales of horses killed by hawks. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo plays in deep shadows and perspective, placing Gawain against harsh rocks and under (or sometimes spinning above) an endless sky. As he approaches the Green Chapel, he emerges through mist as yellow as his robes—an eerie trick of light that marks his approach toward this most natural conclusion. The rich colour palette varies in saturation and hue, refuting the need for drabness as consistency when the film is united by thematic exploration and Daniel Hart’s plucked score. A mere $15 million budget thus results in one of the year’s most visually striking works. 

Even the lush outfits are built from plants. Costume designer Malgosia Turzanska replaced all leather-looking items with plant-based materialsmainly pineapple leather, coconut leather, mushroom leather and tree bark. To her, it was important that The Green Knight reflected the ethics of Lowery’s veganism and the unobvious choices of material bring the film into closer dialogue with the natural world. In a standout sequence, Gawain’s tied body rots to skeleton as the world remains unchanged around him, the camera rotating through a forest devoid of human noise. Time moves relentlessly and Gawain’s glory or honour matter not. 

The Green Knight 3

Courtesy of: A24/Amazon Studios

Essel finds herself forever an outsider, connected to Gawain through love but forever separated by the laws of man. As Gawain seeks shelter, his quest having taken disastrous detours, he recalls his last conversation with Essel before he set off. When she asks if he will make her “his lady”, he replies that he can give her more gold than any lady has. It is an answer and a refusal. She grabs his face, moving it in her own declaration of true love. It is a desperate pretence, the wall of propriety unshakeable. When Gawain gives into the Lady’s amorous advances in return for a belt identical to that his mother made him—Essel’s doppelganger offering him a shadow replacement—the knightly order he follows breaks down in his own unearthed shame. 

Green Knight 1 (1)

Courtesy of: A24/Amazon Studios

The Green Knight himself, whatever his origins in myth (here, he is a creation of Gawain’s mother, Morgan le Fay), becomes a personification of nature. As the Lady explains, he is green not because he is unnatural but because no being is more of the living earth than he is. The red blood of humans is as transient as the lust it represents, whereas green is as impartial, forgetful, and omnipresent as time. 

When you go, your footprints will fill with grass. Moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues. This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones, your virtue.

This speech echoes the rhythms of the poem, as translated by Marie Borroff. There is nothing more natural than growth, and the time that turns it to decay. 

The leaves launch from the linden and light on the ground, 

And the grass turns to gray, that once grew green.

Then all ripens and rots that rose up at first,

And so the year moves on in yesterdays many,

And winter once more, by the world’s law, 

draws nigh.

Despite parallels to the poetic text, it is futile to compare Lowery’s vision with the 14th century poem; they are different beasts for different times, the same archetypes shaped for new understandings of the world. “When I see room for improvements, I make them,” the Lady says of her large library, all copied by hand. The Green Knight does not improve upon its source material but starts a divergent dialogue, creating an equally magnetic, magical vision. 

The Green Knight

Courtesy of: A24/Amazon Studios

At the stunning conclusion of The Green Knight, the incomprehensible laws of nature come to their head in Gawain’s own visions. He sees an alternate fate for him, one built from the shame of a broken promise and on the further shame of the woman who loves him. Gawain’s fear and bravery are tied to the last token of loveless honour and honourless love. There is no peace there. “I’m not ready,” Gawain gasps as the Green Knight prepares to strike, the exact same breathless phrase he uttered to his lover as she playfully teased and cajoled him on his way to Christmas Mass exactly one year before. And who can be ready? Who can see their end clearly even when death’s reminder is all-encompassing and ceaseless? 

There is peace, however, in the wild symmetry that brought him a friendly Christmas game, and in the figure without malice or mercy that grew creaking out of the ground. The Knight has sympathy, even curiosity, for Gawain’s struggle, but he holds no room for shoulds and oughts and deeper meanings. Perhaps this natural logic is right. Grass will soon grow over the corpse.

So, to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 2…

#20 – After Love
#19 – Undine
#18 – No Time To Die
#17 – Ninjababy
#16 – The French Dispatch
#15 – Shiva Baby
#14 – Dune
#13 – Drive My Car
#12 – Annette
#11 – Minari
#10 – Sound of Metal
#9 – Spencer
#8 – First Cow
#7 – C’mon C’mon
#6 – Nomadland
#5 – The Power of the Dog
#4 – Another Round
#3 – Limbo
#2 – The Green Knight

Stay tuned for the remainder of 2021 as we count down our Top 10 films of 2021!