Scholars of the Middle English tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will have
a lot to appreciate in David Lowery’s lush, visually arresting adaptation of the
story, The Green Knight. Thankfully, those of us without an encyclopedic
knowledge of the fable about the Arthurian knight who sets out on a quest to
prove his valor and loyalty have more than enough to fall in love with, too.
Starring Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire,
Hotel Mumbai) as the young man on an expedition of obligation into the unknown,
in writer/director Lowery’s hands, this well-worn story that’s been around for
literal centuries becomes something extraordinarily original, a twisting,
turning adventure through breathtaking imagery, haunting characters and a subtle
morality that never overstays its welcome.
Though he’s capable of adapting his style when needed, Lowery is at his best
when he immerses his audience in the world of the film, and stepping into the
universe of The Green Knight is no exception. From the film’s first scenes, as
Gawain is startled awake by a splash of water on his face, stumbling through a
whore house in time to get home and get cleaned up for Christmas celebrations at
the King’s round table (yes, that round table), Lowery’s every choice in
building atmosphere and mood is striking. Nothing but natural light illuminates
Patel’s scruffy face and the medieval halls he rushes through; Malgosia
Turzanska’s costumes are rugged and textured, the materials and colors both rich
and functional; and from the first, Daniel Hart’s score is as moody and ethereal
as the film is soon to become.
Refreshed from his debaucherous night out, Gawain joins those holding court with
King Arthur for the Christmas holiday; he’s not yet earned a seat there, but as
the King’s nephew, he’s called up by the monarch to take a place at his side.
There, King Arthur asks to be entertained with a story of adventure and bravery;
Gawain, young and untested, knows he has none to tell. It’s then that the
mysterious figure known as the Green Knight arrives unannounced (but perhaps not
entirely uninvited?) at court; Lowery has imagined him as some sort of living
tree, a giant covered in something like bark with eyes barely visible behind his
thick, coarse “skin.” What unfolds next sets Gawain on his quest: the Knight
offers to take one blow, any blow, from anyone there, but only if that person is
willing to take a blow from the Knight one year later, at his chapel a six-day
journey from Camelot. Eager to prove himself, Gawain stands and takes the
Fast forward a year, and King Arthur expects Gawain to make good on his pledge
to the Green Knight; in a world driven by one’s honor—or lack thereof—Gawain is
left with little choice but to follow his King’s orders, so he sets out to find
the Green Chapel. The original middle-ages poem doesn’t depict in detail the
adventures and obstacles Gawain encounters on his journey, but that doesn’t stop
Lowery from imagining trials and exploits that are at turns heartbreaking,
thrilling, scary and even confusing. Along the way, the landscapes Gawain
traverses are daunting and unforgiving, as if the earth itself is doing its best
to keep Gawain from meeting his destiny. Through it all, Patel is a calming,
centering force in the film, creating a Gawain that is as vulnerable as he is
ambitious, and anxious to prove himself as he is unsure if he’s capable of what
it will take to do so. It’s a long way from the doe-eyed tea-server of his film
debut in 2008, and watching Patel evolve onscreen over the last decade-plus into
the confident, capable leading man that he is here has been a singular pleasure.
Eventually, Gawain finds the chapel where the Green Knight is waiting for him.
He’s a different man now, because a year has gone by but also because of the
arduous journey he’s just survived to get there. Facing his fate, the fable
seems to be nearly at its end. But Lowery isn’t quite done with Gawain’s
harrowing journey just yet, giving us a sweeping, indulgent late-film sequence
that is likely to remain one of the best scenes in film this year. It’s an
extraordinary capstone on an exceptional film; taken in its entirety, all 130
minutes of The Green Knight are impossible to look away from, and not likely to
be soon forgotten.
The Green Knight is one of those film that defies audience expectations at every
turn and where every single element—such as the often-stunning cinematography
from Andrew Droz Palermo—works so well that even as you are watching it, you
can’t wait to see it again and again. Lowery takes the familiar and transforms
it into something utterly original and distinctive—so original and distinctive,
in fact, that some viewers may find themselves resisting its audacity,
preferring the more overtly eager-to-please likes of a typical summer movie.
Those are films that are genial enough but they evaporate from the mind seconds
after you watch them. Lowery’s film, on the other hand, is likely to take up
space in you mind for a long time after watching it, making you wish that other
fantasy films would approach their material with even a sliver of the unique
personal touch that he demonstrates here. It is the years best film so far.