Medieval Knights, especially Arthurian ones of the Round Table, come with certain expected traits – honour, loyalty, chivalry, heroism, bravery… and Sir Gawain of the original epic poem is no exception. You may be surprised then, by the Gawain you find in David Lowery’s new adaptation of The Green Knight, who is lacking in pretty much all of these qualities. Lowery is much more interested in the inevitability of life and the futility of man’s actions, in this case the puppet masters are two women – Gawain’s mother Morgan le Fay (his aunt in the original legends) and The Lady – a temptress he meets on his journey, both of whom give him a protective sash that will have huge significance. Gawain’s choices are simultaneously full of import and seemingly meaningless and by the end, you will be given no clear-cut answers on whether anything he does actually matters. Games, stories and theatrics (including a puppet show) are intrinsic to this world, so the extent to which anything is “real” is very much left ambiguous.
The Gawain of this film version is deeply flawed, so much so that you may struggle rooting for him on his quest and caring about his journey. The casting of Dev Patel is Lowery’s masterstroke here – this is Gawain as an Everyman (and there are certainly parallels with that medieval morality play) who is relatably fallible but remains charming and attractive (something that Lowery certainly leans into). We were supposed to have had Patel’s David Copperfield and The Green Knight released close together in 2020 and they make perfect companion pieces. In both, Patel is an Everyman trying to find and shape his own story and wrestle control of his life from outside forces. But if we had got The Green Knight in 2020, it would have been a very different version, as Lowery has extensively re-edited it since then and it is fascinating to imagine what that version would have been like.
As well as Patel, the wider cast is carefully calibrated – Sean Harris and Kate Dickie as the fading King and Queen set exactly the right tone at the start, as does Sarita Choudhury as Gawain’s witchy mother. The Queen has one of my favourite outfits (in a film filled with exemplary costume design by Malgosia Turzanska) – a dress with small silver charms all down the bodice, each one unique. Alicia Vikander is excellent in her dual roles – as Gawain’s local girl Essel (with an accent that is not easy to pull off) and as the temptress (with a very different English accent) at the large hunting lodge that Gawain takes refuge in on his journey. Ralph Ineson as the titular Green Knight is another genius touch – he brings a humour and mischeviousness that the film really benefits from (and could have leaned into more). The opening throwing of the gauntlet – the Green Knight storms into Arthur’s castle on Christmas Day and challenges one of the knights to a charmingly festive game that involves hacking his head off – sets a thrilling and amusing tone.
It is on Gawain’s quest to the Green Chapel to fulfill his destiny (which most likely involves him losing his head in return) that all the big set-pieces come, neatly divided into chapters with different headings, making us constantly aware of the story’s origins. Firstly, Gawain is beset by clumsy highwayman and corpse-raider Barry Keoghan (who I was convinced was a 12 year old boy for some time, due to the forced perspective of Dev Patel looking huge on his horse), who steals several important items, but thankfully not Gawain’s magnificent yellow cape. This leads to one of the most stunning sequences – the camera whips around in the forest, circling towards and away from a gagged-and-bound Gawain in total silence (which is a huge contrast to the overwhelming use of score and sound design throughout) that is a real hold-your-breath moment. Then there is his encounter with Winifred (an ethereal Erin Kellyman), probably the most horror-filled segment, with a spooky lake dive, skeletons and rolling heads. The most Gilliamesque (a director I was frequently reminded of) moment, unfortunately brief, is with the giants – who are blankly staring alien-like beings reminiscent of Fantastic Planet (1973). A recurring companion is the fox, fulfilling the classic sage/guide/harbinger archetype which regrettably doesn’t lead into an animal-filled side quest. The sequence with the Lord (Joel Edgerton), Lady (Vikander) and a blind crone is the most extended and well, horny. It also includes one of the most visually stunning scenes, of a celestial Gawain being “painted” (but really photographed) by the Lady.
The cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo is beautifully composed throughout, with even “ordinary” scenes being beautifully lit and some overhead shots that truly take the breath away. But perhaps even more impressive than the visuals, is the score by Daniel Hart and the sound design by Johnny Marshall which absolutely commands the senses, while being judiciously edited for greatest effectiveness. The sounds of nature in the forest are threatening and foreboding and the sounds of the Green Knight awakening are creakily, bone-crackingly awe-inspiring. The over-all pacing of the film is going to be the thing that most people struggle with, especially as there is an extended epilogue (if we can call it that), but this wasn’t an issue for me and in fact, if this were to become a Lord of the Rings-style trilogy (with extended editions of course), I would be lining up for each one.
Lowery has created something entirely on his own terms here, a spin on the Arthurian hero that certainly makes the protagonist less palatable, while being leisurely-paced, dark and macabre. While I wish he had leaned a little more into the influences from Willow and The Dark Crystal by injecting a little more humour (something he could have done while absolutely keeping the gruesome and gory elements), there is still a lot of wit to be found here. As many other critics have mentioned, this is a film that will sit with you and you will probably change your mind about it over time (my opinion on how likeable Gawain is has already changed, less than 24 hours later). Many of the images from The Green Knight will certainly have staying power and it is a film that is begging for multiple re-watches, as it is densely layered and there is a lot to unpack. While its mass appeal is probably limited, those who love it are going to really love it. It’s bold, risky and original – something we’ve been crying out for, this year especially. I cannot wait to watch it again.
Oh – and this is one hundred per cent a Christmas movie.
The Green Knight is in US theatres from July 30, 2021.