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‘The Green Knight’ is a Brilliant and Fresh Take on a Timeless Story

Dev Patel dazzles in David Lowery’s film of the Arthurian legend.
The Green Knight
By  · Published on July 28th, 2021

If there is any remaining doubt that David Lowery is one of the greatest filmmakers working today, let The Green Knight vanquish it all.

In his prior two works, A Ghost Story (2017) and The Old Man & The Gun (2018), both superb, one saw flashes of Lowery’s directorial genius. The first forty or so minutes of A Ghost Story is filmmaking at its finest. And The Old Man & The Gun captivates in no small part due to the aura of its star, Robert Redford, whose essence Lowery effortlessly captures.

But in all one-hundred and thirty minutes of The Green Knight, the director never relents. Each shot feels deliberate. The camera moves with elegant purpose through the mythical world Lowery, who also wrote the script and edited the film, brings to life on screen. The story on which the film is based, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was written by an anonymous author in the 14th century. And in Lowery’s hands, along with those of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, the tale feels as fresh and biting as ever.

The film stars Dev Patel as Gawain, an aspiring knight who often descends from life in the royal bloodline to the saloons of Camelot and the bed of his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). He gives off the impression of a spoiled, entitled playboy with nothing to lose and even less to prove. We soon learn, however, that he is not without the insecurities and fears that come with being next in line to the throne. He has everything to prove.

On Christmas, Gawain’s uncle, the King (Sean Harris), invites the young man to sit at his side during a feast. The king asks his nephew to tell an exciting and noble story from his life and journeys. Gawain says he has none. The Queen (Katie Dickie) gently reminds Gawain that he has none yet. On cue, a mysterious, viny figure rides into the feast on horseback: the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who resembles a more human-like version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents.

With a menacing and stoic voice, the Green Knight challenges any willing participant to play a game. The rules are simple. They may take the Green Knight’s ax and use it to strike a blow wherever and however they choose. One year later, with the Green Knight’s ax in hand, the challenger must then journey to the Green Knight’s chapel, where the Green Knight will have the opportunity to return the blow in the same manner.

The aging and feeble king is the first to consider the challenge. He quickly withdraws after realizing the urge in his mind is far stronger than the muscles of his body. Eager to prove himself, and perhaps more so after his uncle’s earlier gesture at dinner, Gawain volunteers to play the game. The Green Knight hands Gawain his ax, kneels, bows his head, and awaits the blow. Gawain, befuddled by the absence of a fight, seems unsure of the game but, in accordance with the rules, chops off the knight’s head in one powerful motion. The Green Knight appears dead. But a few moments later, his body stirs, stands, picks up his head, directs his face towards Gawain, and before getting back on his horse and riding off, simply says he will see Gawain in one year’s time.

The rest of the film takes place in the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of the game. Gawain’s journey to the chapel is a solo march to the grave. How could he possibly survive a blow like the one he dealt the knight? The six-day voyage leaves plenty of room for reflection on life, death, honor, and glory. Patel shines as Gawain, a regal and suave figure who always feels human.

Gawain encounters a number of obstacles and figures en route to the chapel. There are times when Gawain wonders whether what he sees is real, a spirit, or inside his own mind. He decides it ultimately does not matter. The real antagonist of the film, then, becomes Gawain’s inner monologue, which, while never fully said out loud, comes through in Patel’s affecting performance. Gawain knows that his visit to the chapel will most likely end in death. But if he returns home, and goes back on his word, he will be dishonored, a fate worse than death for a man who dreams to be a knight and who will one day sit on the throne.

Breathtaking landscape shots can be found throughout Lowery’s work. Think the sheeted C gliding across a field in A Ghost Story, or a wounded Redford on horseback in The Old Man & The Gun. In The Green Knight, the shots of the British mountains and forests are so rich one can nearly smell the greenery. And they are not without a purpose. Gawain stumbles down rocky cliffs, loses his horse, and gets tricked by a band of thieves in the woods who lie to him about a treacherous stream. He battles against the forces of the natural world, itself a manifestation of the cyclical nature of life that he must confront at the Green Knight’s mossy, overgrown chapel.

Though the action of The Green Knight never slows, Lowery leaves room for reflection. He favors a long take, a refreshing choice in a cinematic moment obsessed with speed. And it gives us more time with the characters. There is not a weak performance in the film. Vikander is particularly strong. Not only does she play Gawain’s lover from Camelot, but in a dual role, she’s also a woman, referred to only as The Lady, he meets just before his arrival at the Green Knight’s chapel. Lady and her husband, a man known only as The Lord (Joel Edgerton), each share intense, intimate moments with Gawain from which I could not look away.

Sarita Choudhury exhibits a different kind of duality in her stand-out performance as a loving, mysterious mother to Gawain and sister to the king. She seems to practice some kind of sorcery, and could even be the one behind the knight’s challenge. While readers of the original tale may know more, the film never makes it totally clear.

For those of you who are familiar with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, be ready to have your own head turned upside down. Lowery is not afraid to amend the source text. The way he ends the film is genius. Lowery shows yet again the lengths to which he will go in order to develop a more intimate relationship between his characters and the audience. Ultimately, Lowery leaves us with a comment on the transcendent nature of the story itself. The human condition, unlike the human, never dies.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.