Synopsis – A fantasy re-telling of the medieval story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
My Take – For decades 14th-century England set films based on King Arthur and his cohorts have usually been big-budget action-packed spectacles where characters lug around big swords and romance damsels, with sprinkles of magic also thrown in to further glorify these easy-to-follow narratives of the past.
However, this latest from writer director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun) lacks theses expected grandiose drama, but instead is a more of intimate, lavish and pensive medieval tale which is more of a study of a character’s inward conflict than it is about any outward conflicts.
After all the film is a visual adaptation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ a 14th century poem which famously doesn’t have a credited author and is considered as one of the most important works of English literature penned in Middle English that’s inspired centuries of study and contemplation. And here, director Lowery’s uncompromising vision results in a film that’s often dreamlike, melding symbolism and metaphor with visual elements of color and texture, and full of intrigue and mystery, that has been done all in order to capture the intent of the original work.
Yes, some might find the film too slow-moving or inscrutable to enjoy, especially the ones who like their medieval adventure stories nice and clean-cut. And there’s no effort to modernize the story, or any attempt to make it easily legible to the audience. But with director Lowery leaving behind the standard expected format, he has ended up crafting something much more subtle and immersive, making this yet another success for the elegant A24.
The story follows Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), who hopes to become a knight one day. But due to his lack of confidence or conviction to fully embrace the tenets of knighthood, he spends most of his time drinking in a brothel with his commoner lover Essel (Alicia Vikander).
However, on Christmas, while he is summoned by his uncle and his wife, Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) to attend their party, Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury) dismayed by her son’s lack of responsibility and ambition, weaves a spell to ensure his future success.
A spell which conjures an otherworldly beast known as the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who arrives at the King’s court challenging any knight at the Round Table to a game, which involves an exchange of blows one year apart. With the King and Queen too frail, and the Knights of the Round Table not stepping up, Gawain seizes the opportunity and leaps toward the dare, something which he quickly regrets. A year later, in order to uphold his end of the game, Gawain begins his travel to the Green Chapel where the Green Knight resides. A journey which is marked apparitions, temptations, doubts and villains.
Simply put, the film is a mesmerizing and creative rendition that plays homage to classic historical and fantasy films. It offers an experience that is both modern and classic, as it spins a piece of Arthurian legend into a grand mythology. It carries an aura as if it is not of any time or place; it is just a being, telling a tale of knights and morality within its own rules and world.
Here, the chameleon filmmaker known for contemplative films concerning mortality with his assured hand perfectly weaves a medieval legend into a beautiful and challenging film that understands on a foundational level the ancient literature that it adapts. Sure, at time it feels a bit self-indulgent, but the way it approaches the source material is also what makes it so interesting and unique.
The story unfolds more like a poem than a traditional film narrative, creating an unease. But the impatience we have while watching it is the same experience as felt by the main character. He wants to become a Knight so bad that he is willing to take shortcuts to make it happen. As we may not recognize a moment of importance until it has already passed, Gawain doesn’t realize the challenges he faces until too late.
It also helps that the film has excellent production design that is both dark and gritty. There are several incredibly shot sequences, whether it’s of Gawain traveling or showcasing a piece of symbolic imagery. The actual picture quality is spectacular, in fact, the whole thing feels like an immense music video, with luxurious lighting, use of shadows, mist/smoke, and rumbling ambient noise.
The performances too are top notch. While Dev Patel may seem like a strange casting choice at first, he is more than up to the task, and delivers yet another stellar performance. In fact, since this role is outside of the typical roles we see him cast in, he really gets to show his range and how much he has matured as an actor. Though he is onscreen only for a few minutes, Ralph Ineson leaves a demanding and imposing presence.
In supporting roles, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, and Erin Kellyman deliver incredible performances in their respective roles. On the whole, ‘The Green Knight’ is a thrillingly spellbinding, and breathtakingly bold cinematic experience that will be remembered for a long time.
Directed – David Lowery
Rated – R
Run Time – 130 minutes