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 bargain.
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 chaiwallah 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 125 minutes of The Green Knight are impossible to look away from, and not likely to be soon forgotten.
The Green Knight is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.