By Alejandro A. Riera
David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a veritable cinematic feast: visually, aurally and intellectually. It’s that rare film where every element is carefully crafted, from the costume, production and sound design to the photography, the score, the editing and story. (Lowery re-edited and tweaked the film during the pandemic after its premiere at last year’s SXSW was postponed.) It transports you to a world that is both grim and magical, haunting and spellbinding; the movie envelops you to, at the end, invite you back in so you can take delight in looking at each of its components individually to see how they complement each other. In other words, I love this film.
Based on the epic 14th Century Welsh poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Green Knight is more than an adaptation: Lowery reinvents and reimagines the story. For while the anonymous poem exalts chivalry, Christian values and even, towards the end, gives readers a moral lesson (at the expense of the women who are all portrayed as temptresses and harridans with the exception of Guinevere), The Green Knight is a story about the conflicts between pagans and Christians, about courage and the lack thereof, about expectations and finding one’s own path, and about the weight of legacy and notoriety (or, in other words, celebrity).
In the poem, Gawain is a noble knight, who sees himself as the lesser of the gallant Knights of the Round Table, willing to give his live in a quest that is beneath his king and his fellow men. But the first image we have of Gawain in the film is of our protagonist as a fully crowned king, sitting on a throne, his skull and crown exploding into flames. The story properly begins at a brothel on Christmas Day as Gawain (Dev Patel) wakes up in the arms of Essel (Alicia Vikander), his favorite. Gawain is King Arthur’s nephew and, in the film, the son of enchantress Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), Arthur’s half-sister. Later that evening, as Camelot celebrates the brth of Christ, Gawain is asked by King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Guinevere (Kate Dickies) to sit by his side and tell a tale of derring-do. These are not, however, the youthful, virile and larger-than-life Arthur and Guinevere of past cinematic and televised incarnations: they are frail, elderly, at the tail end of their lives, their glory days far behind.
Gawain acknowledges that he has no tale to tell since he has yet to encounter danger or foe to which Guinevere replies, “Yet.” And right on cue the Green Knight, a giant tree-like being beautifully and otherworldly voiced by Ralph Ineson, irrupts into the party after being beckoned by Morgan and her witches. As in the original tale, the Green Knight challenges those gathered to land a blow on his body with his axe; whoever lands the blow must seek the Knight at The Green Chapel the following year to receive a similar blow. Seeing this as an opportunity to build up his reputation as a knight, Gawain accepts the challenge when no other knight does, picks up the axe and chops the Green Knight’s head off, thinking that this would mean the end of the challenge. But the Knight picks up his head and reminds Gawain of his vow.
A too quick year, as one of the film’s many chapters announces, passes and Gawain has no choice but to be true to his word. Fully shielded and wearing a belt full of amulets his mother made for his protection, Gawain departs towards his destiny. The poem’s anonymous author hints at the many wonders and adventures his far nobler Gawain encounters but argues that it would task his mind to tell all. Lowery has no such qualms; in a way, the poem opens the door for an artist’s imagination to go wild. More than adventures, Lowery’s Gawain endures a series of misadventures and encounters with creatures real and fantastic. He crosses a war-torn field full of skeletons and decomposed bodies to be later robbed of everything by a scavenger and a couple of highwaygirls; he sees naked giants roaming through these misty, cold landscapes on their way to who knows where; he meets the spirit of St. Winifred who asks him to recover her missing head from a stream and reattach it to her body lying in bed; and a lord (Joel Edgerton), his lady (Vikander pulling double duty) and her blind companion welcome him into their castle and later test his integrity with all sorts of temptations that the lord asks be reciprocated. Not to mention the chatty fox that accompanies him during his quest.
More than test Gawain’s chivalry, each encounter tests his moral, ethical and spiritual mettle and his resourcefulness. The challenges are both physical and metaphysical; there is no blood spilled. You could argue that Lowery has turned the original chivalrous tale into a bildungsroman: Gawain is meant to become a better man, and a knight worthy of the title, from the lessons learned from each incident. Even the final minutes of the film, where Gawain sees a vision of his future a la Last Temptation of Christ when faced with the Knight’s axe, is a lesson.
Shot on Irish locations, The Green Knight has a wonderful, earthy quality, from the magnificent tree-like design of the Knight to the cold, misty and fog-shrouded forests and plains Gawain travels through. Andrew Droz Palermo’s gorgeous photography not only grounds the film and highlights the repressed pagan aspects of the original tale but also gives it a hallucinogenic feel through the use of natural and staged lighting, green and red filters included. His camera plays with time as it circles clockwise and counterclockwise on a scene, tying the present with a potential future. Then there’s David Hart’s eerie, ethereal score with its use of era appropriate chants, electronic beats and strings — by far the best movie score I’ve heard this year. Malgosia Turzanska’s gorgeous, elegant and, in some cases, grungy costumes and Jade Haley’s detailed interiors tie everything together in one beautiful ribbon.
And then there’s Dev Patel, an actor who has brightened up the screen with his affable persona in a series of moving, upbeat and life-affirming performances that barely touched the surface of what he is capable of. Here he is given a brand-new toolbox to play with: his shift from a nonchalant bon vivant to a man plagued with doubts and haunted by his own weaknesses is so subtle, so seamless, so organic that you don’t realize until much later how powerful his performance is. It is a wonder to behold, just one of the many riches The Green Knight has in store for the moviegoer willing to take chance on it.