Film Review: ‘The Green Knight’: Yawn-Fest With Deep Spiritual Insights

By Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
August 4, 2021 Updated: August 7, 2021

| | 2h 10min

“The Green Knight” Rotten Tomatoes score: The Critics: 90 percent—Fresh! The People: 52 percent—Rotten!

“The Green Knight,” a film adaptation of the Arthurian poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” is one of those languid, art-house-type moody tone-poem movies that cause critics to wax poetic and audiences to hate it. I’m with the people. Why? It’s boring! Zero tension. Pretty? Yes, but I insist of movies that they do not violate the No. 1 rule of show business: “Never be boring.”

What Happens

Gawain (Dev Patel, yes, the Indian actor—this is the version where Indians and black folks lived in Great Britain in the 14th century) belongs to the court of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and hopes one day to be knighted. He’s got a woman named Essel (Alicia Vikander), whom he relegates to the woodpile due to her, er, lowly station.

man in yellow robe with horse in The Green Knight
Dev Patel plays Sir Gawain in “The Green Knight.” (A24)

On Christmas Day, the mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), looking like Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” rides his mighty steed into the middle of the Camelot festivities and throws down a gauntlet: If any man can manage to even nick him with their weapon of choice, they get to win his giant green axe.

man with face made of tree bark in The Green Knight
Ralph Ineson plays the titular Green Knight in “The Green Knight.” (A24)

However! There’s a catch! If they win, they have to go on a six-day trek to the Green Knight’s Green Chapel, a year hence, to man up and endure the same wound they originally doled out to the Green Knight.

Seeing as how nobody wants to mix it up with this forest-y Brobdingnagian (talk about your Debbie Downers), Gawain, wanting to make his bones in this vaunted company, accepts the challenge.

man with sword stands before a king inThe Green Knight
Gawain (Dev Patel, front L) and King Arthur (Sean Harris) in “The Green Knight.” (A24)

And forthwith, Gawain choppeth off the head of said mystical knight!

But what is this?! The Green Knight—that original headless horseman—immediately picketh up his bark-and-twig head, mount-eth his steed, and leave-eth.

man on horse in the Green Knight
The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), in “The Green Knight.” (A24)

A year goes by, and with all hope that it was just a game eventually fading, Gawain, honor at stake, sets out for the Green Chapel.

That’s Maybe Half the Synopsis

The rest is a phantasmagorical dreamlike journey and quest, some of which might be allegorical, some of which might be the character seeing through his third eye. It’s hard to guess which mode of perception (and which reality) it might be at any given point. The main thing is—Gawain is tested, both physically and spiritually.

Basically, this is a becoming-a-man tale, on the surface of it. The director has woven a few unrelated Arthurian legends in with this Green Knight telling, but whether this is a pure telling or an enhanced one is unimportant. What it really is, is a tale of spiritual enlightenment—as are most of the Arthurian legends. Most fairy tales too.

Salvation communities such as the monasteries and nunneries of Christianity and Buddhism (and actually most humans prior to the Industrial Revolution) consider enlightenment to be the sole purpose of being human, and that is why there are so many stories thereof. “The Odyssey” is an enlightenment tale.

man in yellow robe riding horse inThe Green Knight
Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), in “The Green Knight.” (A24)

A Little More Synopsis

The biggest test is that at some point, Gawain reaches the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert (known here as “The Lord,” played by Joel Edgerton), who is Gawain’s host before his arrival at the Green Chapel.

two women and one man in furs in The Green Knight
The Lord (Joel Edgerton, C) in “The Green Knight.” (A24)

At The Lord’s castle, Gawain is submitted to tests of loyalty and chastity. The Lord sends his wife to seduce Gawain. He also proposes a bargain: He will give Gawain whatever creature he kills on his daily hunts, on the condition that Gawain give him anything that he might possibly gain during the day. Gawain accepts. The next day, the wife visits Gawain’s bedroom and tries to seduce him, but he allows her only a single kiss in his attempt to remain chaste (and also not to offend her). When The Lord comes home and gives Gawain a deer he killed, Gawain gives him a kiss, but doesn’t tell him where it came from. And so on and so forth.

mand and woman in woods in The Green Knight
Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) and The Lady (Alicia Vikander), in “The Green Knight.” (A24)

Gawain tries very, very hard to remain chaste. In the movie version, he is, let us say, somewhat less successful. But that doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. In this endeavor, even a thought counts in the testing of one’s purity.

Will Gawain find the Green Chapel? Will he keep his head? Why are Essel and The Lord’s wife both played by Alicia Vikander? Are Indians and black people living in 14th-century Europe all that disturbing if you have a preference for naturalism, realism, and historical accuracy (which I do)? Turns out … not really.  

In a nutshell, the main lesson—the gold nugget of wisdom—is as follows. Personally finding the topic of salvation deeply engrossing, what jumped out at me was the fact that at one point The Lord’s wife explains to Gawain that red … is the color of lust.

Why is that important? The critical line in the sand in terms of spiritual enlightenment is chastity. This is why it’s considered to be the most difficult challenge that humans can attempt. You want to become an immortal, a saint? The biologically embedded, procreationally necessary tendencies toward lust for the opposite sex (and especially for same-sex lust), and all thoughts about it—have to be overcome. Complete and utter purity of soul is the name of the game. This is why Saint Augustine famously said, “Dear God, give me chastity … but don’t give it yet.”

Whether this is the true message and distilled essence of the tale or not, what I enlightened to is that the Green Knight himself symbolizes purity and chastity. Why? Do you know what happens if you stare at a patch of red for an extended period of time and then suddenly look at a white wall? Your brain produces a powerful, ghostly phantom image of pure green. And so I interpret this as follows: Those who want to attain the state of chastity in spiritual enlightenment must strive to become green knights—the complementary color, and polar opposite color, of lustful red.

For in order to attain true immortality, all human things must be jettisoned. The 14th-century monks knew this. The Shakers knew it. We don’t know it at all today. But unless broody, moody, medieval-murky, mystical movies are your cup of tea, if you’re interested in this topic at all, I’d suggest reading some good books about it instead.

‘The Green Knight’
Director: David Lowery
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Sarita Choudhury
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Rating: R
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years’ experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.

Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.