Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Sarita Choudhury, Joel Edgerton, Erin Kellyman
Director: David Lowery
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Hypnotic and bewildering in equal measure, The Green Knight, written, directed and edited by David Lowery, is a visual treat noteworthy as much for the finesse and flair of the cinematic execution that facilitates it as for the immersive punch that the lead actor Dev Patel’s magnificently modulated performance adds to it.
In his second outing as an English hero (after his star turn in The Personal History of David Copperfield), Patel, banking upon gestures and facial expressions more than on spoken words, conveys the confusion and compulsions of a would-be knight who must undergo several trials before he is deemed ready to don the mantle of his legendary uncle, King Arthur.
An interpretation of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, the film takes liberties with the Arthurian legend – which, of course, only adds value to the filmic reworking and the layered character study that it is envisaged as – and resorts to a certain degree of artful opacity that might seem to be at variance with the fairy-tale quality of the narrative.
Coming to think of it, that is no drawback either. In fact, the consistently dreamlike nature of the narrative lends additional strength to the film, especially when you compare it with the bloated superhero movies that pass for Hollywood summer fare. Lowery’s film has the scale, sweep and spectacle to rival a tentpole production, but it is, in essence, the tale of a flawed hero assailed by doubt and devoid of the attributes necessary for an unsullied knightly life.
The Green Knight – there is a good reason why it isn’t Gawain who gives the film its title – dives into depths that are hidden from sight in an otherwise simple story of a dissolute drifter seeking his destiny in a dangerous duel. The hero’s adversary isn’t a super-villain of the conventional kind – he is rooted to the earth and denotes the untameable power of Nature.
The Green Knight is a medieval fantasy adventure for adults centred on the metamorphosis of ne’er-do-well young man whose exploits and experiences allow him to face his fears and misgivings and loom for a way around them. He rides off to receive a blow in return for the one that he delivered to The Green Knight, a giant indestructible creature who is part human, part arboreal, exactly a year ago.
At the same time, the film says great deal about humanity, masculinity, courage, chivalry and heroism, a lot of which is subversive in a quiet, gentle sort of way, without making an overt show of it. Lowery crafts a dreamy and trippy epic that follows the conflicted Gawain on a ride – in the strictest sense, it is more a glide than a ride – through a forest, across streams and mountains, and interrupted by forced stopovers in mysterious abodes on a journey to the Green Chapel where he has to submit himself to the will of The Green Knight.
Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo paints the frames in dull grey and captures the colours of the earth, the forest and the mountains through a perpetual haze created by clouds, smoke and mist. The depths that he drills into the visual compositions enhance the cinematic experience. The camera weaves circular rhythms around Gawain, mirroring the restlessness of a soul unsure of what the future holds as well as the imponderables that mark the man’s foray into the unknown.
Gawain, when we first meet him, is in a brothel in a drunken state. He is under the spell of his beloved, Essel (Alicia Vikander). It is Christmas. The King (Sean Harris), his Queen (Kate Dickie) and the Knights of the Round Table are gathered for celebration. The King invites Gawain, his nephew, to sit beside him and tell him a tale about himself so that he can know him better.
I have none, says the young man, barely out of his stupor. The Green Knight arrives unannounced on horseback. He offers to play “a friendly Christmas game”. He will part with his green axe, he declares, if any of the knights dares to decapitate him and meet him a year later to receive the same treatment at his hand.
Gawain, on an impulse, steps forward and accepts the challenge. He beheads The Green Knight with a swift swipe of the Excalibur. The latter picks up the head and rides away, laughing ghoulishly on the way out. The wait begins for the day when Gawain must make the trek to honour his end of the deal.
While his bravery is memorialised in a puppet show performed against the backdrop of the “wheel of seasons” representing the passage of time, it also points to what lies ahead for the reckless young man who is still as vulnerable to temptations of the flesh and the indiscretions of youth.
As he steps out of Camelot for the fateful voyage, his mother, the enchanting Morgan Le Fay (a terrific Sarita Choudhury), makes a green girdle for him. It is as a much a lucky charm as a protective shield. “When you return, you will return with your head held high,” says his mother. The question is: will Gawain’s head still be where it now is – on his shoulders?
He is destined to falter, stumble and make discoveries that he cannot fully comprehending. It is the kind of journey that takes him back and forth between reality and dreams and, in the process, poses many a question for an audience that has to decide whether Gawain’s encounters are actual events or parts of a fevered reverie.
Gawain asks one of the characters that he meets: “My lady, are you real or are you a spirit. The reply he receives is, “What’s the difference?” In the context of what the aspiring knight encounters along the way – brigands, ghosts and gigantic apparitions, the lines separating the real and the imagined are blurred.
Another character asks Gawain if he believes in witchcraft. Yes, he replies, “it is all around us”. In significant ways, The Green Knight is an examination of the contours of myths and fables anchored in stories that have been passed from century to century. It is steeped in magic and miracle, both of pagan provenance and Judeo-Christian origins, but tethered to the human sphere.
On his way to the Green Chapel, Gawain comes across a battlefield strewn with dead warriors, fights off a Scavenger (Barry Keoghan in a memorable cameo), plunges into a stream to fish out the head of a ghost (Erin Kellyman), and is drawn into a strange trade-off with a Lord (Joel Edgerton), not to mention his brushes with naked giants, a talking red fox and toxic mushrooms.
Nothing in the supremely accomplished The Green Knight – neither the film’s awe-inspiring canvas, the strikingly impressive camerawork, the sepulchral musical score by Daniel Hart or Alicia Vikander, cast as both Essel and the Lady of the manor that Gawain spends time in a few days before the last leg of his journey – overshadows the phenomenally steady Dev Patel. This is his film all the way. He does not put a foot wrong.