How do you find the words to describe a film that transcends its medium and becomes something that feels like it’s always existed? As a writer, I rarely find myself at a loss, yet here The Green Knight has left me, wondering what to say and how to say it.
Perhaps the difficulty stems from the impossibility of absorbing everything this film contains in one viewing. Its plot, at least, is easily summarized, if only because after seven centuries it has been firmly established as a familiar one. Gawain (Dev Patel), nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), accepts a challenge from the otherworldly Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) to prove his honor and attain knighthood. The challenge is a game, a blow for a blow, with Gawain agreeing to receive the same blow he deals the Knight in a year and day, on the following Christmas. Unable to see the true character of the game, Gawain beheads the Knight. The Knight stands up, retrieves his head and rides away, laughing.
And so the young man, the presumptive heir to an elderly, feeble Arthur, seals his own fate. So begins his hero’s journey, where he must unearth truths about the nature of honor, the world around him, his looming mortality and — most terrifying of all — himself.
It’s a fantastic story, both in its original 14th-century form and in this one. Writer-director David Lowery rightly identified the anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the Arthurian tale most ripe for an adaptation unlike any that have come before. The poem is rich in detail, riveting in its suspenseful telling and strikingly modern to a 21st-century reader: a portion of it reads like a particularly well-edited film, cross-cutting between attempted seductions of Gawain by an enigmatic Lady and graphic hunts of stag and boar and fox by the Lady’s husband. Above all, though, it is the mixture of the uncanny and the deeply human that gives the old tale its timelessness. Lowery never forgets that, never simplifies, choosing instead to heighten and expand on this quality to create a film that is as mythic as it is resonant.
If the richness of themes accounts for a good portion of The Green Knight’s mastery, then an equal part is owed to the technical alacrity from Lowery and his team, despite his troubles in reworking it after SXSW was canceled last year. There is an enormous amount of symbolism in every creative choice, from an early shot of a house on fire in Camelot that seems to elicit no response to the eerie choral score from Daniel Hart, from the deliberately ponderous pacing to the silent movie-esque title cards, from unnatural red, green and yellow lights illuminating faces in turmoil to the sounds of a tree uprooting itself when the Green Knight walks. Every frame of this movie is as beautifully composed as it is unusual and, occasionally, jarring. Beautiful in spite of the subtle rot woven throughout, Lowery’s England is a quiet nightmare as often as it is a wondrous dream.
All of his accomplishments would be gilded brass, though, if Gawain were not a hero who fails more often than he succeeds. “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Thank god Lowery understands this just as well as Rian Johnson, just as well as the anonymous poet who committed his masterpiece to describing, in acute detail, not a successful quest from King Arthur’s most beloved knight but a failed one. Lowery’s choice to deviate from the poem in removing Gawain’s famed peerlessness, in setting the story before he is a knight and not after as is traditional, does not diminish the ultimate moral of the tale but rather heightens it. Gawain has more to prove, more flaws to overcome and therefore much more to lose. In his performance as Gawain, Patel somehow manages to wear those flaws openly as a young man adrift in a world that expects him to be more than he is while also burying them so deeply that when circumstance makes them rear their ugly heads, he breaks. Again and again, he breaks, but he continues his journey anyway. Because that’s what heroes do.
Patel himself has nothing to prove to anybody. Nonetheless, he proves here that he is beyond capable of carrying a deeply bizarre and challenging not-quite-indie, not-quite-blockbuster feature on his very broad, handsome shoulders. His star has been rising since he played a party teen in Skins; we’ve yet to see his full constellation, but I imagine The Green Knight could be the Betelgeuse to his Orion, a remarkable brightness in a sky that never dims.
Supporting Patel is a cast that makes you forget they are real people and not archetypes from Arthurian legends: Harris and Kate Dickie as the aged Arthur and Guinevere; Sarita Choudhury as Gawain’s mysterious mother, a version of Morgan le Fay whose love for her son sets the events of the story in motion; Alicia Vikander in a fascinating dual role that shows two sides of a woman in full control of her sexual life in a society that ostensibly prohibited such control; Joel Edgerton as a generous host with a taste for peculiar games; Erin Kellyman as a headless saint; Barry Keoghan as a menacing scavenger; and, of course, Ineson as the eponymous Knight. What a list. What a world that list creates. I would happily live in that world and consume all the stories great and small to which Lowery gives us a taste in service of Gawain’s journey.
Arthurian legends have enchanted me since I was small, and the story of Gawain is particularly important to me. I feel very lucky to have received an adaptation of it that, in many ways, is not exactly the one I imagined but rather one that fills my imagination to the brim with delight, awe and possibility. The Green Knight is not straightforward. It is not a casual watch. It has no easy answers. It mines the depths of storytelling with very little care for your comfort. But for all that, it is a comforting movie. It is always a comfort to know that legendary heroes are human too, flawed yet capable of greatness.
There is just so much in this film. I can’t begin to describe it all, nor do I want to for fear of ruining the experience. This is a movie that deserves essays, theses, books — hours of close study, as many hours and more that scholars like J. R. R. Tolkien dedicated to the original poem and to deciphering what its lines had to say about human nature and storytelling. One day, perhaps I’ll do just that. For now, this short, insufficient review is all I can manage. I hope everyone who sees it doesn’t move past it quickly. Let it linger. There, you’ll find some reward.