After being delayed for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, A24’s ambitious and visionary retelling of Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has finally arrived. Adapted from the epic 14th century Welsh poem, the story follows Sir Gawain, an untested knight of King Arthur’s Round Table who recklessly confronts the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) when he interrupts Camelot’s Christmas celebrations with a proposal to play a “game.” The emerald-skinned, Ent-like creaure’s challenge is this: anyone who can strike a blow against him must then allow him to return the blow in kind, one year later. Gawain decapitates the Green Knight with one blow, only to be stunned when the knight reanimates to casually pick up his head. And so the year-long countdown to Gawain’s doom begins.
Led by career-best work from Dev Patel and the unparalleled artistic sensibilities of director David Lowery, this version of The Green Knight is a hypnotically mournful rumination on masculinity, temptation, heroism, and religion. This painterly vision of a medieval time is both rooted in history and embedded in magic, but it also challenges the traditional expectations of chivalric stories. For one, the headstrong nephew of King Arthur (a wheezing Sean Harris) is very unlike what we find in literature. Worried that he’s not destined for greatness, Gawain desperately wants to prove himself worthy in the eyes of Arthur and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), despite being the son of a witch (Sarita Choudhury as the enigmatic Morgan Le Fay). Yet for all his pride, Gawain’s drunken fallability and trysts with a prostitute (Alicia Vikander) proves that he is not pure of heart.
As the deadly consequences of his impulsive decision looms near, Gawain must embark upon a journey to the Green Chapel to face his fate. Avoiding his death isn’t the quest, so much as how he chooses to meet his death. Along the perilous trek across the countryside, Gawain must contend with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers including a scavenger played by Barry Keoghan, a mysterious young woman played by Erin Kellyman, and a Lord played by Joel Edgerton. Each step of his magic-realist path is a test – trials of temptation and seduction, each appraising his doubts and desires to see if his convictions hold true. The quintessential hero’s journey here is not a physical one – but a mental, spiritual and emotional one – translated in lush visual detail.
Critics may point to its glacial pace and loose structure as deficits, but in truth, Lowery’s poetic storytelling deftly matches its source – circling back to themes like a rhyming structure, and unfolding his story in what almost feels like cinematic stanzas that repeat and comment on each other. Gawain’s journey becomes a spiral, feeling more and more like a dream, and the film gains momentum through a cumulative sense of disorientation. The Green Knight’s earthy and enchanting visuals unpack both the erotic subtext and pagan roots of the lmyth – while exploring themes of mortality (in vastly different ways than Lowery has done with previous films like A Ghost Story), virtueless clout chasing (surprisingly potent in the age of social media as well), and man’s inconsequence in the grand scope nature.
Like any great work of art or literature, much of this film’s breathtakingly abstract sequences are open to different interpretations, but what comes across clearly is the idea that The Green Knight is force of nature – unjudging, unmoving and uncaring. How we define ourselves and choose to behave in the face of that is the question. Patel’s mesmerizing leading man performance here embodies the character’s uncertainty in that question in many ways. His presence is irresistable, but his ungallant cadence isn’t your dad’s idea of a brooding or brave knight. Alarm, astonishment and aloofness is conveyed in his posture and physicality – Gawain is a quavering man at war with his own integrity.
FIlmed in natural light and using lo-fi special effects, David Lowery’s dreary grey deconstruction of dark fantasy is surreal and beguilingly beautiful. Every frame captures an image so striking that it belongs in an art exhibition. Likewise, Daniel Hart’s unsettlingly alien score, Andrew Droz Palermo’s ethereal cinematography, and the film’s exhaustively detailed costuming and production design, all contribute to The Green Knight’s bold feat of imagination. Those seeking a typical swords-and-sorcery adventure might be bored. This unique evocation asks a lot of casual audiences due to its languid momentum and unconventional film grammar. But more attentive viewers will surely be spellbound by its sumptuous symbolism and meditative search for meaning.