Phenomenally talented filmmakers who prove themselves to be genre polymaths are an exceptionally rare breed, which is why it has been exhilarating to watch the growth and development of writer/director David Lowery. Since breaking out in 2013 when the romantic crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, he has seemingly made a point of exploring new kinds of stories with each new project, and the results have been remarkable each time out – be it the family-friendly adventure in Pete’s Dragon, the haunting beauty of A Ghost Story, or the enchanting charm of The Old Man And The Gun.
Given Lowery’s track record, it’s not surprising in the slightest that his cinematic take on an Arthurian fable is something truly special to behold, but that in no way undercuts the magnitude of the accomplishment. The Green Knight is all at once thrilling, gorgeous, and haunting, featuring its own special take on a classic tale that will have your jaw agape while watching and your mind spinning as you walk away.
Adapted from the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” David Lowery’s movie introduces its Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) as a character more uncouth than one typically expects from a Knight Of The Roundtable – but as the nephew of the beloved King Arthur (Sean Harris) he believes that he has something to prove, and is anxious for his opportunity to have his defining adventure and demonstrate his mettle. This desire is brought into focus during a Christmas banquet when he is unable to recount a tale to entertain the monarch… but then the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) arrives.
A flora/human hybrid unlike anything anyone has ever seen, The Green Knight suggests what he calls a “Christmas game” to the stunned hall. The fantastical being offers to give his spectacular, mighty axe to anyone who can strike a blow against him, but said individual must then seek him out in one year’s time at a place called The Green Chapel to have the blow returned in kind. When none of the other knights accept the challenge, Gawain jumps at what he sees as his chance to become a hero –Arthur even going as far as to let him use Excalibur. Unexpectedly, the Green Knight lays down his axe and offers his neck to his opponent, and Gawain impetuously strikes and decapitates the stranger.
Gawain is then left shocked as he watches The Green Knight pick up his own head, laugh, and announce, “One year hence” before riding away on horseback.
The next 12 months are a series of revels as Gawain is celebrated as a legend for his defeat of The Green Knight, but come the next Christmas he begins to grapple with the reality of what he must do. Taking the axe he won, an enchanted sash from his mother, Morgan Le Fay (Sairta Choudhury) that promises no harm will come to him, and saying goodbye to the woman he loves (Alicia Vikander), he sets out to the Green Chapel – encountering character-testing conflicts as he makes the journey.
Every frame of The Green Knight makes you want to leap into the screen.
The Green Knight opens with a stunning shot of a crown slowly floating down on to Gawain’s head, with fire engulfing both cranium and coronet when it lands, and it’s ultimately a perfect visual introduction\, as that moment sets the bar for an experience that is a cascade of gorgeous shot after gorgeous shot. The movie is transportive in its period authenticity, expressed through brilliant set design and atmosphere, and any cinephile will be challenged to not fall in love with David Lowery’s awesome and ambitious experimental uses of his camera – like when a slow clockwise spin moves the setting through time to show a possible future, before a slow spin back returns to the action. Blended with the pristine editing and chapter-driven structure, it feels less like a film and more like the experience of falling into the original text.
Furthermore, it feels like a rare modern gem that makes exceptional use of both practical and visual effects – successfully adding a fantastic production value to the epic, as well as a stunning scope. The gorgeous design of the haunting titular antagonist and the make-up team’s work bringing it to life is singularly an artistic achievement, the likes of which we don’t typically see in indie productions. Likewise, the CGI work is spectacular, as not an ounce of the verisimilitude is lost as Gawain witnesses the trek of a group of giants; the effects work is too great, and you’re too lost in the fantasy for that to happen.
Dev Patel delivers an amazing performance as a flawed and hungry Sir Gawain.
What the striking cinematography and detailed effects work help bring to life in The Green Knight is a compelling and meaningful character study that plays in the classic tradition of the hero’s journey. Dev Patel’s iteration of Sir Gawain is a wonderful and complex one, as Patel has rakish charm and effortless charisma, but he also very much challenges the audience not to like him as he casually flaunts all of his flaws. In challenging the eponymous foe, he believes that he has shortcut to greatness, but instead he finds a road that tests his honor and courage – and the experience unfolds as a gripping transformation that keeps you locked in and questioning what will happen when Gawain and The Green Knight have their second showdown.
The Green Knight is very much a showcase for Dev Patel’s immense talent, but he is ensconced in a fantastic ensemble cast – its members popping up through the series of vignettes that play out as segments of Gawain’s expedition. Barry Keoghan is the standout among the supporting players, playing a young battlefield-roaming stranger with sinister intentions, but also delivering wonderful turns are Erin Kellyman, playing a ghost whom Gawain helps find peace, and Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander (in a dual role) as an charming and mysterious lord and lady who give the protagonist shelter as he makes his final approach to the Green Chapel.
David Lowery executes his own vision of the Arthurian legend, and it's special to behold.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story with a fantastic legacy, having famously been translated by none other than J. R. R. Tolkien, but David Lowery is able to leave his own special stamp on the material with The Green Knight, and it’s a stunning piece of work. Featuring deep themes and an excellent structure that, at moments, bends and morphs time, it’s a movie that is not only incredible to watch play out once, but demands to be rewatched for further examination. It’s a special film from a special talent, and one of the best of 2021 so far.
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