The pandemic has not been kind to the silver screen, with would-be blockbusters like Nolan's Tenet not making nearly as much as was projected at the box office. No surprise, then, that films with a lower profile, coming from less established names slipped through 2020 without making ripples. I would like to briefly review (with little in way of spoilers) one such project, The Green Knight.
Without dwelling on the cast, the score, the director or even the plot I will cut to the chase and tell you why you might want to see the film and how the 1984 version of the same Arthurian legend (Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) compares with it. First let me reassure you that the visual effects used in the 2020 version are tasteful and used sparingly, the film relies on wide shots and develops at a pace that is not rushed nor too relaxed. When compared with the 1984 version, which pushes Gawain the protagonist from one bizarre encounter to the next, the 2020 version takes its time to unfold Gawain as an imperfect character on his way to knighthood, a theme that both films share, though it is not borrowed from the source material, which does not emphasise Gawain's youth more than necessary to establish the plot in time. Upon being challenged by the Green Knight and performing the gruesome task which he puts forward, both Gawains sets off on a quest of acquiring wisdom and understanding (acquiring) women.
Costumes in the 2019 version make only a very general attempt at historicity, mixing clothing, architecture and armour from various epochs and relying rather on the impression of the middle ages than attempting to recreate them as they could have been. Nevertheless the costume choices are laudable: they are able to generate a medievalesque atmosphere while side-stepping the gruesome task of historical re-enactment. Back in 1984 a similar mish-mash of weapons and costumes is employed, though this was no doubt to a lesser degree a conscious choice. (The medievalist will be especially offended by the perpetuation of the myth that a knight would be placed on his horse with the help of a crane.) Sword of the Valiant nevertheless delivers a convincing-enough medieval experience even to those of trained eye. Both films get away with a lot because neither is an historical movie, but rather both adapt a medieval tale. It makes most sense to set a story composed in the middle ages in a medieval setting, but those could vary depending on the period chosen. The frequent re-telling of the story in different periods, and the fact that even the 'original' or most well-regarded rendition from the 14th century predictably sets the story in the distant past, allow for a certain liberality in the choice of historical backdrop.
What matters most to both films is the story and both make good use of the tropes present in the original work. The older film casts the Green Knight as an antagonist akin to a malicious sorcerer, whose supernatural abilities are never dwelt upon, but treated simply as attributes for Gawaine to overcome. While the protagonist in Sword of the Valiant learns a lot through his quest and survives the challenge put to him, this is done through simple contest of strength. The role of the Green Knight is played by Sean Connery, who manages to make the character almost jocular, perhaps making the film less mystical in the process, overall however the film succeeds in channelling the oneiric qualities of Arthurian romance, telling a story that is fragmented, perhaps confusing, with not infrequent changes of register throughout - just as the source material would be. The introduction of multiple extra motives to the plot was a risky decision, but I think it paid off, since stretching the narrative arc of the Green Knight's challenge and filling it with more Arthurian tropes, such as magic rings, riddles, vanishing castles, evil barons and pretty ladies who have been waiting for us in a tent for a very long time makes the film almost like a rather bland cheesecake filled with unexpectedly good raisins. On the other hand the new film adheres to the original material, introducing only a sliver of new material - the encounter with Saint Winifred - which however does not disrupt the overreaching plot. It needs to be mentioned that the extra material is incorporated in a way allowing those trained in textual analysis to detect that it is an appendage: being tied to the main plot only tentatively, through the fox familiar which follows Gawaine on his quest. The Green Knight is handled better in my opinion, being more stoic and pensive than his earlier rendition. The final challenge feels more meaningful, despite or precisely because it is not an action scene. The newer film rings darker, attempting some sort of moral commentary, in which it is perhaps more true to the source material.
All in all I can recommend both films, though for slightly different reasons, as indicated above. It is good to see a legend perhaps far older than Arthurian romance garner new takes on itself every half century or so. I leave you with the thought that perhaps consuming all available versions of a story gives you a greater appreciation of the meta-story, not that which remains unchanging between the version but that which is greater than the sum of their parts.