By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
I usually like to watch movies without knowing much context. I like going into the movie theater pretty ignorant so that I can be delighted by every twist and turn that unfolds, so I can be like, “Oh, that’s what the movie is about?” Unfortunately, “The Green Knight” doesn’t benefit from this practice.
And it’s still a fantastic movie! I still left the theater in awe—but also in slight confusion.
See, to understand “The Green Knight,” you’d have to clearly remember the stuff you read in your college Medieval English literature classes. And if you didn’t take a Medieval English literature class, it is even harder to grasp all of the details in “The Green Knight.” I definitely recommend reading a Wikipedia entry or two before seeing this movie.
“The Green Knight” is a cinematic retelling of a 14th century Middle English poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and covers themes of honor, heroism, and spirituality.
“The Green Knight” is directed by an American, David Lowery (whose work is so impressive in “The Green Knight” that I feel compelled to check out all of his other films now), and stars English actor Dev Patel as the eponymous Gawain.
Gawain is the nephew of King Arthur and during Christmas, as they are chilling with the other Knights of the Round Table, an uninvited guest called the Green Knight shows up all scary and challenges a brave knight to a ‘game.’ Gawain self-selects because he’s brash and perhaps arrogant. The Green Knight tells him that whatever blow Gawain deals to him, the Green Knight will pay Gawain back with the same blow in exactly one year.
For some reason, instead of a tap on the shoulder, Gawain decides to behead the Green Knight, not realizing this dude is fricking magic, which is nuts because the dude looks like a tree. So the Green Knight comes back to life after the beheading to everyone’s astonishment. And then Gawain spends the rest of the movie in dread and resignation, because he realizes he’s slated to be beheaded in a year’s time. And of course, he has to go through with it because this is like, Arthurian times and they are serious about honor and didn’t yet adopt ‘just kidding!’ as a cultural practice.
See, this is the stuff I wish I had known going into the movie. The movie is told so subtly and beautifully—and everyone is speaking in an English accent of some sort—that it was kind of hard to pick up the different nuances of what was going on. Like, Gawain has some mommy issues that took me so long to figure out, simply because I didn’t know who his mom is (from the Arthurian legends).
Okay, we need to talk about Dev Patel and how much of a glow up he’s undergone over the past few years—since his “Slumdog Millionaire” days. Dude, he’s so hot now.
He smolders! He has such luscious hair! He looks super kingly and does an incredible job in this film. As engrossing as the film was for me, sometimes I got mentally pulled out of it because I had fleeting thoughts like, “Dude, Dev Patel looks so handsome! WTF!”
This bit of casting is very interesting. More and more nowadays, I think filmmakers have been casting more people of color in roles that are not originally meant for people of color, and rather than change the story to include an explanation of like, why a super good-looking man of Indian ethnicity is playing a character who was undoubtedly super duper white, Lowery just treated it as normal, in-universe, and continued going about and telling his story.
I used to be a bit more bothered when API characters were just injected into a story without proper character-building ‘cause it’s like, hey, casting APIs isn’t enough.
Obviously there’s no API writer on staff writing these characters, and that’s troubling.
But in this case, the sense of it is different. It feels different when the character is a freaking English legend—Gawain. So casting a legend with a non-white actor and then going on as if it’s business-as-usual is a real boss move.
Also, when people of color are cast in significant roles, what ends up happening is the people around them who are related to them in the story also end up being embodied by non-white actors. Like Gawain’s mom. She is played by—yes, you’ve seen her before, she’s everywhere!—Sarita Choudhury. It was cool to see (more than) two people of color prominently in a movie that’s based on an Arthurian legend. Like, wow!
I give this movie four stars! Though as someone who has a hard time watching stuff without cars exploding, I have to tell you that zero cars explode in this movie. So if you’re a person that needs that, this might not be for you. This movie is also a thinker—it has many notes of ambiguity and it lingers after you leave the theater. I know ambiguity sometimes drives certain movie-goers bananas.
Lastly, the mood—the cinematography, the set design, the costuming, the score—is just beyond. It is such a gorgeous and gritty-dirty (in a good way) version of a kind of story that is often told with a lot more glamour. “The Green Knight” is simultaneously lush and stripped down. It’s just beautiful.
“The Green Knight” was widely released and is playing at a theater near you.
If you are not comfortable going to a theater just yet, it is streaming online for one night only, next Wednesday, Aug. 18, starting at 6 p.m. our time. Tickets can be purchased for $20 at the A24 Screening Room website.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.