We Joust With 'The Green Knight' : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Green Knight is a lushly epic fantasy film full of striking visuals and strangely moody adventures. Directed and written by David Lowery, the film stars Dev Patel as King Arthur's nephew Gawain, who sets off on a quest to earn a knighthood. Along the way, he attempts to resist giving into various temptations, including the temptation to turn back and live out a comfortable life.

We Joust With 'The Green Knight'

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"The Green Knight" is a lushly epic fantasy film full of striking visuals and strangely moody adventure. It's based on the 14th-century poem "Sir Gawain And The Green Knight," which is one of the most well-known tales of Arthurian mythology. Dev Patel plays King Arthur's young layabout nephew, Gawain, or, as they say in this film, Gowen (ph), who sets off on a quest to earn a knighthood and the honor he believes is due him. Along the way, he attempts to resist giving into various temptations, including the very real temptation to turn back and live out a comfortable life. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "The Green Knight" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.


WELDON: Welcome back. Joining me is NPR Culture Desk editor Bilal Qureshi. Hey, welcome back, Bilal.


WELDON: All right. So "The Green Knight" is written, edited, produced and directed by David Lowery, whose previous films include "A Ghost Story" and "The Old Man And the Gun." It's set in the waning days of King Arthur's round table when Dev Patel's Gawain takes up a challenge by a mysterious tree-like Green Knight, played by Ralph Ineson. After Gawain beheads the Green Knight - don't worry; the Green Knight's magic, so it's just a flesh wound - Gawain must seek out the Knight's home in one year's time and allow him to deal Gawain the same blow. When Gawain eventually sets out, he'll meet up with Joel Edgerton, Alicia Vikander, Barry Keoghan, a ghost, a fox and many other things. "The Green Knight" is in theaters now. Bilal, what'd you make of the film?

QURESHI: I mean, in the kind of course of what's being released into the pandemic-theater economy, I have to say this is one of the most original, you know, ravishing, lavish, all of the kinds of words that I think people are using in the criticism of it, too. It's a beautiful film to look at and truly cinematic. And, you know, it's also from A24, the studio, which I think by now has such a kind of reputation and such a signature. And it fits all of those things. I mean, the cast - Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander - like, the music, the cinematography, the typography - like, it has all of these things that I think make it feel so fresh and different in comparison to what's been out.

I think my experience of the movie was more aesthetic, I think, than frankly, like, I didn't emotionally connect to it as much. But I have nothing but, like, a lot of respect for what this movie is doing and how fresh it is to see it. And it was meant to come out, you know, I think, last year, and it was one of the films that was delayed. And so I saw that trailer a year and a half ago, almost, it seems like, and it really got me very excited. And so I was glad to finally be able to see it.

WELDON: Yeah. I mean, Twitter went nuts over the trailer when it came out because the visuals of this thing are so striking. Everybody's talking about them. Everybody should. I mean, Lowery's cinematographer here is Andrew Droz Palermo, who worked with him on "A Ghost Story." And certainly, the look of that film is one of the main reasons I liked it as much as I did. This is a lot more ambitious in terms of cinematography. It's a lot more difficult, more gorgeously dramatic locations and terrains. It's really lush - hyper-stylized set designs. I mean, and the costumes are interesting because they kind of hover between period and modern. And at one point, we see a shot of Patel just from the chest up and I'm like, is that a baseball tee? It's just the look of the costume kind of threw me off. And I just couldn't stop looking at Arthur and Guinevere's crowns.

QURESHI: Yeah, the crowns, like, are probably the best crowns I've ever seen in a - I think "The Crown" itself could take some guidance from...

WELDON: (Laughter).

QURESHI: ...What making a really, like, signature cinematic crown would look like. I mean, the other thing, too, that makes it so un (ph), like, forgettable is that, of course, you also have Dev Patel playing a knight. And, you know, I think he's also someone which - immediately, when I saw the trailer - and it was like - it has this, you know, Irish, kind of moody, misty landscape, you know, the worn castles and all of that, but then you have someone like Dev Patel, who's very much, I think, a star of kind of contemporary cinema and a very contemporary kind of leading man. I think having that kind of combination of things going on - and the music, too, which we have to mention, like, the music by Daniel Hart. It has really interesting music cues that is not like a typical score. They sort of pop and burst and then disappear. And there's all this gurgling kind of nature sound in it, too, which - you know, trees crunching and all kinds of things going on that are really - that make it all, as I said, a really rich, undeniable aesthetic experience.

WELDON: Yeah. And let's talk about Patel's casting because he is, in my opinion, even though it's, quote-unquote, "nontraditional casting," he is perfectly cast here because he is so soulful and vulnerable. And then at some point in the film, he is called upon to portray a man who is just bereft, who is just lost with regret. And what happens in those scenes is the light completely leaves his eyes. He's fantastic.

One of the differences we have on this film, Bilal, is that I am a sucker for Arthurian stuff, especially here when they steer into the pagan pre-Christian primal underpinnings of these stories, you know? When it's just dressed-up people in very clean tunics with pageantry and love triangles and jousting, that's not what I'm here for. I am here for the magic of it, the dirt, the grime, the druid magic. I'm here for Merlin and Morgan le Fay. And it's one of the reasons I love John Boorman's "Excalibur" so much because - that's a very flawed film, but, you know, a lot of the more recent attempts at Arthur stories just leave me cold. This completely scratched my itch, though we can't really get into the details of exactly how. I mean, the poem that it's based on is about the testing of a young man and so is this film, although who's doing the testing and why gets a tweak. One of the things Lowery adds to the poem is a rather overt ecological message. Did that work for you?

QURESHI: Yeah, no, it did. And I think when you say that, I was really thinking about the metal of these kinds of movies, the way they shine. There's always that kind of, like, the sound of armor in my mind. And I didn't feel that that was what I thought of with this movie. It's nature. It's the kind of, as you say, the pre sort of modern world. That's really what the force is in this film. And I think, you know, the design of "The Green Knight," who is this sort of tree - I don't even know how to describe the sort of look, which is all over the trailer but...

WELDON: He's an Ent. He's basically just an Ent. Yeah.

QURESHI: He's an Ent. Exactly. Right. So, I mean, and, you know, all of that work is amazing. And even the green, you know, where he's going to the forest and all of that stuff is much more of the landscape of this than the castles and the halls and all of that that I'm used to seeing - people just sitting on tables and, like, debating with goblets, you know - not - goblets, right? Is that - you know...

WELDON: (Laughter) Yeah, totally goblets.

QURESHI: Like, there wasn't that sort of vibe going on. And it reminded me actually of when, many years ago, HBO did the series "Rome." I don't know if you ever saw that. But I think what I remember, interestingly, was that they were saying that they wanted to show how dirty and kind of grimy the old world was - the very, very old world was.


QURESHI: And I felt like that was also present here, that kind of weighed-down, scuffed-up, kind of griminess was really beautifully conveyed.

WELDON: Yeah, I agree. I mean, scholars for years have debated exactly what the Green Knight represents, what is - what does the Green Knight stand for? And Lowery is just putting all his ships on - it's nature, duh. I mean, that's it (laughter), you know? And in a way, I thought that that whole theme was a bit undercooked in the early parts of the film. And at one point he's riding out and people are chopping down trees, and that's like, OK, I get some of that - until Vikander gets this amazing monologue late in the film. It's the longest stretch of dialogue in what is not a very talky movie. It's - so apart from casting, Patel is the lead. The fact that the meatiest monologue in a film about knights and chivalry and honor, which are all real sausage-fest topics, historically, it gets delivered by this incredibly powerful, intelligent female character who's got all sorts of agency, who's a lot more together than Gawain is. That's really kind of remarkable. And that monologue is about the futility of things like honor and bravery and other human/male preoccupations.

QURESHI: Well, the one thing I would just say is that I think what I found interesting in seeing it is when I saw the trailer and it felt like - it looked like a music video, frankly. To me, it looked like I was - I didn't know if I was going to get sort of the Baz Luhrmann-type version of an Arthur kind of legend. But what ultimately - you know, yes, I agree there is this sort of, like, feminist element with Alicia Vikander's character. There is the naturalism, climate, ecology, all of that is in there.

But ultimately, I felt like it also was a kind of conservative film, too, in some ways. Like, when I saw the actual film, it wasn't - yes, it's very lush and beautifully done, but it's not as radical as maybe the marketing made it seem to me that it would be. It has - it is very faithful to the original source material. It moves in a slow, meandering way as a quest would. It has a very interesting pace. So I also found that if anyone is maybe thinking from seeing it that they're about to watch, like, a 2021 edition, like, a music video edit, I didn't also feel, for me, it felt that way.

WELDON: Well, yeah, because of the structure of the film. I mean, you're right. This is not Guy Ritchie's "Arthur" in any stretch of the imagination...


WELDON: ...The poem, and like a lot of Arthurian mythology, is picaresque in nature, right? It's a series of adventures. It's a series of "Monster Of The Week" episodes. And at one point, a title card comes up saying an interlude, and I thought, this is an interlude? Because we've been having lots of interludes. But what I liked about this actually film is that there is a bit of Hollywood screenplay structure overlaid over the Arthurian myth. So they're not standalone adventures, really. There is a through line here. And each interlude, each adventure, offers him something that he'll use in the one that follows in a way that it doesn't necessarily happen in the original poem or in a lot of Arthurian mythology. But it was structured that way, which is a very deliberate structure. In a way, it's a very straightforward adaptation, and what's radical is the look and the theme, the ecological theme.

QURESHI: Yeah. I mean, the other thing, too, I was going to say is that to the point of about structure and kind of how it moves, one of the most interesting things I've read about the making of this film was that it was meant to be released last year. And David Lowery said that he went back and basically reedited the film and adding things to it. He felt, in an interview that I read that, you know, he had been expected to have it have some pace and, like, move, and he wanted to allow it to be weirder and to meander more. And so this is a kind of - this is the edit that was essentially done over lockdown. And so it's, in his explanation of it, more, you know, weirder.

And I think one of the things that I think is interesting about a director like him is that - he's got this A24 movie. He's got "A Ghost Story." He became famous through "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" - is the original film, I think, with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck that he made. And then he made "Pete's Dragon" for Disney, and then now he's making "Peter Pan And Wendy" for Disney right after this, the adaptation of that. And I actually - I find that, you know, we've talked about directors who go between these big movies for big studios and make their kind of independent, weird personal things. And he's doing this back and forth. And I found, given how uncommercial, frankly, this film feels to me and how odd it is, that it's very evident that he can make a big studio movie, too, and he is doing it right now. But it seemed like he really leaned into that creative freedom. And this is a unique movie.

WELDON: I agree. It's very stylized, not just in visuals but in storytelling. I don't know how commercial it would be. You know, in a perfect world, in a non-pandemic world, I think this might - because, again, it's the appeal. It's - you've got a bifurcated appeal of a very straightforward story. And a lot of - it's not window dressing at all. It's, like, a lot of stylization supporting it. I think it might - in another world, I think it might have been a pretty solid box office success. We'll see. We'll see how it does now.

But, yeah, he is a very idiosyncratic director, except when he's not like in "Pete's Dragon." But, yeah, this is what's happening now. These personal, idiosyncratic auteurs are getting gobbled up by Disney, Marvel and they're making these movies. And it's always been this idea of, oh, I'll do one for them, one for me. I mean, he wrote, produced, directed, edited this film...


WELDON: ...So this is a very personal statement about the futility of things like honor. And I think that's a really interesting take right now.

QURESHI: Yeah, I think to your point about sort of Dev Patel's soulfulness, it reminded me of the first time I saw him in a movie after "Slumdog Millionaire," which obviously made him really famous, that he has that sort of forlorn sort of, you know, presence on screen - was in the movie "Lion," which came out a few years ago. And I think he's been making really interesting choices as an actor as well. And, you know, this, along with "David Copperfield," which came out last year, the Armando Iannucci film - I mean, he's also now essentially played two iconic British literary characters back to back, too...

WELDON: That's true.

QURESHI: ...And I think in each of those films brought something really contemporary and different. And as a leading man, he's just continued to become one of the most interesting actors, I think, to watch on screen. So I thought there was the David Lowery component. But then also as a Dave Patel-filmography thing, this is a very interesting move for him, too.

WELDON: Absolutely. I would love to see a double feature of "David Copperfield" in this movie because Patel is so radically different in both those films. He is projecting, you know, Iannucci's sunniness. That film is a remarkably cheerful film...


WELDON: ...Coming from the guy who came from. And it's exuberant. And he buys into that feeling of steering into the comedy. And here, he is steering into a sense of being lost and adrift.

QURESHI: Agony as well.

WELDON: Yeah. Yeah.


WELDON: Well, we want to know what you think about "The Green Knight." Find us on facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter, @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you, Bilal, for being here with me.

QURESHI: Thank you, Glen, for having me.

WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we will see you all tomorrow.


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