There’s a moment in The Green Knight, David Lowery’s (Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon) magnificent adaptation and deconstruction of the 14th-century chivalric romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Gawain (Dev Patel), near the end of a journey that’s equal parts geographical and metaphysical, flinches at the impending downstroke of the title character’s ax. For Gawain, it represents the predictable conclusion of the so-called “Christmas Game,” a game that began with Gawain separating the Green Knight’s (Ralph Ineson) head from his body and a game that will end in a similar fashion for Gawain, a wastrel, prodigal son, and a wannabe knight.
At that moment, death — or rather the personification of Death in the form of the Green Knight — has come for Gawain. Here Gawain’s natural fear, the recognition of his mortality in the literal face of Death, temporarily overcomes him, filling him again with the radical self-doubt that’s plagued him since he impulsively took up King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) sword and attempted to dispatch the Green Knight. It’s Gawain at his most human, his most vulnerable, and his most relatable. Even as his journey has traversed not just geographical distance, but metaphorical distance too, Gawain has been defined by the codes of chivalry, the idealized, romanticized conventions of behaviour considered the moral epitome of feudal, Anglo-Saxon life.
For Gawain, son of the king’s sister Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), nepotism has allowed him to live in relative comfort. It has allowed him to indulge his physical appetites, but without challenging him to the great feats and accomplishments of the king and his Knights of the Round Table — warriors, like Arthur, closer to the end of their lives than the beginning. Like Arthur, they’re guaranteed a form of immortality in the embellished songs and myths recounting their protection and extension of Camelot’s reign over conquered territories and peoples. Without any achievements of his own and thus no songs or stories attached to his name, Gawain hungers for the kind of quest that will test his bravery, honour, and integrity.
That opportunity arrives on Christmas Day in the form of the aforementioned Green Knight, a half-man, half-tree giant astride an armoured horse. The Green Knight offers to play the “Christmas Game” with one willing knight: An ax or sword stroke for an ax or sword stroke, separated by an entire year. Only Gawain, inebriated from another night of debauchery with Essel (Alicia Vikander), a low-born woman and sex worker who longs for the status and privileges of a feudal lord’s wife, volunteers, leaping impetuously across the roundtable. With his uncle’s magically powered sword, Excalibur, Gawain seemingly succeeds, only to witness in horror and amazement as the Green Knight’s head opens its eyes and reminds him of the wager before leaving with the aid of its still ambulatory body.
Lowery smartly fast-forwards a year, though he stops The Green Knight to take in a puppet show featuring the Green Knight and Gawain’s encounter. It’s obvious that Gawain’s newly burnished reputation isn’t particularly deserved, something Patel’s anguished, conflict-ridden performance conveys to near perfection with minimal dialogue. Gawain, recognizing the choice between fleeing and thus dishonouring himself and his family or undertaking a quest that will surely result in his demise, reluctantly chooses the latter. Gawain’s acceptance of the quest puts him on a path seemingly typical of the classic Hero’s Journey. Lowery, however, keenly aware of the narrative tropes involved, refuses to embrace them without reservation or qualification.
When Gawain leaves King Arthur’s citadel, he’s alone but not unprotected. Gifted a possibly magical sash by his magical mother, wearing the finest clothing typical of a man of his class and social standing, and covered in chainmail, Gawain seems ready to take on whatever the world outside the citadel’s gates has to offer. Except, of course, he’s not. A lifetime of coddling and self-regard has left him wholly unprepared for a world where chivalric codes of conduct have little, if any, meaning. He encounters cunning battlefield scavengers who eye Gawain with envy, a ghost-like woman, Winifred (Erin Kellyman), inhabiting a rundown home in the middle of the forest, kaiju-inspired giants who speak and sing in alien tongues, and a discomforting sojourn at the winter castle of a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Alicia Vikander again), each with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas of their own.
Throughout, the title character patiently awaits Gawain’s arrival in a secular church, the Green Chapel. Lush, verdant, and overgrown, the Green Chapel represents an ancient, pre-Christian kind of worship, a worship of nature and the life-and-death cycles of nature. It’s where Gawain must face his fears of mortality, of death, of returning to the earth without achievement or song of his own. Using Gawain as his stand-in, Lowery recognizes that art, in whatever form or medium, offers one kind of immortality. In an irony obviously not lost on Lowery, Gawain, the Green Knight, and their story has survived for more than six hundred years. The identity of the author of their mythic tale, however, has been lost to history.
Lowery’s key collaborators on The Green Knight deliver too. From a cast led by Patel and Vikander, to cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s stunning, painterly images, and from Jade Healey’s seamless production design combining sets with travelogue-friendly Irish locations, to Malgosia Turzanska’s sumptuous costume design combining earth tones, tactile textures, and splashes of bright colours. There’s also Daniel Hart’s backward- and forward-looking score, mixing traditional 14th-century instrumentation and vocals with minimalistic, modernistic soundscape. All the elements work together to create a singular, oneiric experience — one unlikely to be matched this or any other year.
The Green Knight is now in theatres.