How do I even begin to talk about The Green Knight? Having just watched Twist, a particularly cursed rendition of a classic work of literature, I went into this film with a little bit more caution than I probably would have otherwise. The difference in quality between these two films could not have been greater. Within the first fifteen seconds of David Lowery’s take on the Anonymous poem, I was enrapt. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo and Lowery have crafted a brooding and fascinating world that absolutely begs to be devoured.
Originally a tale of honor and honesty, this take on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is artistically liberal without ever sacrificing the integrity of the story. Gawain, played impeccably by the smooth and terrifically talented Dev Patel (Lion, Chappie), upon Christmas Day, accepts the challenge of the Green Knight: A game of beheading. The Green Knight explains that whomever take up sword and land a blow on him must journey to a green chapel, six days ride north, one year and Yule hence so that the blow may be returned.
Patel’s Gawain hopes to become a knight, a small deviation from the original poem in which he is already a knight, and so accepts the challenge, beheads the Green Knight, and stands victorious over the headless body. The Green Knight then stands, retrieves his head, and rides out of the city, laughing all the way. The film that follows tracks Gawain through his journey to the chapel, following a “Too Short Year.” Lowery isn’t afraid to take his time telling this story, many times allowing shots to draw out, sometimes for almost a minute. The backdrop of the Irish countryside is jaw droppingly gorgeous and the long drawn tracking shots and stoic framing illustrate the landscape masterfully. Misty fields, rain battered hills, verdant forests, all captured with the closest attention to framing and detail.
The Green Knight’s cast is padded with stellar talent. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, Tomb Raider) plays Gawain’s love interest Essel, Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Fallout, Harry Brown) and Kate Dickie (Prometheus, The Witch) sit upon the throne as king and queen, Sarita Choudhury (Mockingjay, Lady in the Water) plays Gawain’s mother, Joel Edgerton (Boy Erased, Loving) plays the mysterious Lord near the end of Gawain’s journey, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, ‘71) stalks the countryside as a scavenger, and Ralph Ineson (The Witch, Guardians of the Galaxy) lends his rumbling baritone to the eponymous knight. And yet, bristling with talent as this film is, it is Dev Patel’s performance that elevates this work. Dev is stupendous, commanding the majority of the screen time and delivering what is easily his best performance to date.
Gawain is a broken and confused young man. Desperately in search of a purpose in the world and thrust into a most curious situation, his face is awash in the struggle of understanding his predicament. The bearded performer is brilliantly devoted to his part, and Lowery and Palermo shoot their subject with absolute clarity. The Green Knight sees Gawain through a robbery, a chance encounter with St. Winifred (played by Solo and Falcon and Winter Soldier vet Erin Kellyman), his fateful test stay with the Lord and Lady, and finally his fated meeting with the Green Knight. Along the way Lowery paints with a broad and symbolic brush, testing Gawain and the viewer, who both attempt to understand the events occurring before their eyes. Ghosts and giants, speaking animals and mushrooms, doppelgängers and haunting prophecies are the du jour, and each sunset, storm, and vision is captured so artistically that I constantly caught my own breath.
As it stands, as a written work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a fascinating poem about shame, honor, and honesty. Lowery adapts these concepts with frightening accuracy, prompting his audience with questions most will find it hard to answer. What is real in this journey? And do the event’s in the would-be-knight’s journey have to be real to teach valuable lessons?
Lowery captures a mysticism that very few filmmakers ever approach. The Green Knight is loaded with visual symbolism and confounding syllogisms. The film isn’t satisfied just retelling the medieval poem wholesale, instead it expounds on it. Gawain is a man fraught with doubts about himself and as viewers follow along they will begin to doubt their assumptions. Lowery’s use of spacing, shadow, light, color, and metaphor are mesmeric. Chapters are introduced with bold and enlarged Olde English text, scenes prelude scenes. Viewers will find themselves on a journey that mirrors our hero as they seek to find meaning to all they see, and yet the meanings to be derived are multifaceted and multitudinous. As time has passed since my screening, my mind continues to race, longing for second and third viewings.
Lowery’s frequent partner, composer Daniel Hart, offers a score for this film that positively oozes mystery, darkness, and conflict. Longing strings capoed by rattling percussion, all framed with liberal use of silence and absence. It compliments the visual work in such beautiful ways that it never draws your attention away, instead drawing you ever deeper into the motion.
The Green Knight is a positively haunting film that must be viewed and viewed again, a beautiful work of contemporary filmmaking that will be looked back upon by students and artists for years to come. Lush with beauty and bleeding with symbolism and tension, it will demand your full attention from opening to closing line. This is undoubtedly Dev Patel at his most commanding, most distinguished. A sumptuous film made for ravenous consumption and unrelenting in its predilection for mystery and intrigue. | Caleb Sawyer