The Green Knight review: A beautiful, bewitching trip
James R | On 25, Sep 2021
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Barry Keoghan
“Do not take your place amongst them idly.” Those are the words of King Arthur (Sean Harris) as Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) joins them at the Round Table in Camelot for a Christmas celebration. They’re softly spoken but ominously linger in the air as the festivities continue – and Gawain, an eager but immature fellow, jumps at a challenge to make his mark as a noble knight. He soon lives to regret it. The question is: how long will he live for?
The challenge comes from the Green Knight of the title, a hulking, verdant figure (a rustling, rasping Ralph Ineson) who proposes a “friendly Christmas game” that’s even more perilous than a family game of Monopoly. The rules are simple: the Green Knight will allow anyone to strike him, on the condition that they will travel to his Green Chapel, six days’ ride to the north, one year later, and let him reciprocate the gesture. Rather than just give him a scratch on the arm, Gawain promptly offs with his head, which seems like the end of the matter, until the Green Knight picks his head up and rides off.
We rejoin Gawain 12 months hence, after a year of revelling in his status as a vanquisher of this unknown enemy and a brave defender of Camelot. To keep his end of the bargain and retain his nobility, though, he must leave behind Essel (Alicia Vikander), his lover of another social caste, and journey to the Green Chapel – where the Green Knight will do unto him what he did to his neck.
What ensues is a gorgeous trek through lush forests and enchanting landscapes, and an atmospheric, unsettling ride into mortal dread. As his surroundings increasingly fill with fog and shadows, questions emerge from the shrubbery. Will Gawain also be saved by some kind of miracle? Will the Green Knight show mercy or compassion? Will anyone remember him after the deed has been done?
Either way, it becomes clear that he’s the victim of his own cowardice, as he repeatedly finds ways to avoid his fated blow from the Green Knight – including taking advantage of the hospitality of a lord (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Vikander, again). And Dev Patel plays the part with burning star charisma, at once quivering and afraid yet also determined and, ultimately, honest. In deconstructing the notion of legends and building myths, it’s a superb character study that lets Patel bring depths to the enigmatic figure of Gawain, who fails to live up to the ideals of a knight but nonetheless keeps striving to live up to them. It’s like watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with both parts played by the same man.
David Lowery’s script expands and contracts the 14th-century poem on which the film is based into a swirling, dizzying odyssey that casts a lyrical spell all its own. It leans into the original text’s playful dissection of knighthood – the Green Knight’s challenge is one of submission rather than brute strength – and its exploration of nature as a tangible pagan force in contrast to the abstract concept of honour, as constructed by Arthur’s Christian court.
But it also widens the scope of this quest into a fantastical trip, from a swathe of giants that cross our hero’s path to the reds and blues of water and blood that bathe DoP Andrew Droz Palermo’s compositions. Accompanied by Daniel Hart’s haunting score, it’s a journey of growths of all sorts, from Gawain’s fledgling moral spine to the emerald tones that seemingly come to cover almost everything in sight.
“You’re in it now!” cries a cunning scavenger (Barry Keoghan) when he encounters a lost Gawain wondering where the Green Chapel might be. A superb monologue from Vikander later talks of what that green can represent, not just witchcraft, jealousy or decay but also life and rebirth. Served up in cheeky vignettes by Lowery, the saga of “Sir Gawain and…” becomes a series of small tales, hemmed in by the all-encompassing greenery of a world that dwarves individual reputations. Crowns fade and fall; the world marches on for new generations to tell their own stories.
David Lowery’s story is one of the handsomest films of 2021 and a visually jaw-dropping piece of cinema. Some will be bewildered by its folklore horror, but others will be bewitched. Either way, it’s not something to enter into idly.