Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Sarita Choudhary
Cinematographer: Andrew Droz Palermo
Editor: David Lowery
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Gawain (Dev Patel)'s family wants him to live a life of greatness so desperately, they send him out to meet his untimely death. With The Green Knight, director David Lowery reworks the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into a sumptuous, hypnotic modern myth, each frame artfully composed and strikingly lit.
Gawain, prone to drunkenness and frequent visits to the local brothel, lives well but has never truly lived. This much is evident when King Arthur (Sean Harris) asks to be regaled with a tale one day. "I have none," says Gawain, lacking a defining moment he can pick out from the blurred sameness of his days. When the mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) rides into court soon after and offers up a challenge, Gawain decides to seize the present so that he can be immortalised in the past. The Green Knight's proposition is simple — anyone who can land a blow on him will win his green axe, but the opponent must seek him out a year later and submit himself to an equal blow. Gawain, in one swift move, lops off his head. A few moments later, the Knight gets up, picks up his head and rides off, his horrible laughter echoing through the halls. On Christmas Day, the birth of Christ, Gawain has signed his death warrant.
His brief moment of triumph rings hollow through the subsequent year as his anxiety at the approaching meeting grows. The townspeople put on recurring puppet shows of his Christmas duel, inadvertently mirroring how he really feels — Gawain, who wears his newfound celebrity uneasily, is just playacting at being normal. When the time comes, his mother (Sarita Choudhury) and King Arthur urge him to seek out his fate, confident he will return safely. Only his paramour, Essel (Alicia Vikander), counters his assertion that he must go off to seek greatness. "Why greatness?," she asks. "Is goodness not enough?" But is Gawain really good? Decapitating the Green Knight may have initially been a smart battle strategy, but was it right?
Gawain himself seems to have no answer to that question as he sets off, the barren and desolate landscape registering as an ominous portent of the doom that awaits him. A young scavenger (a feral Barry Keoghan) that he meets on a field littered with dead bodies boasts that had it been him deployed into battle, he would've survived longer. It's easy to recall with fondness how Gawain was once that boy, with all the conceited follies of youth, before realising that 'once' was just a year ago. The prospect of an early death has only accelerated the timeline of his growth. A haunting scene along his journey plays into this theme, moving the camera in circles around Gawain, first depicting him as a skeleton, then reversing to once again revert him to his current form.
The Green Knight skilfully blends Arthur fantasy with realism, making witches integral to the plot, then inducing doubt over whether the giants Gawain sees later on are real, or just the effects of hallucinogenic mushrooms. It delights in pulling the rug out from under our feet. The film leaves just enough room for interpretations and re-interpretations, much like its source text, and promises to grow richer with each subsequent viewing. Patel is fantastic, wavering between the legend he wants to become and the man he isn't sure he is.
Throughout, the film returns to the question of whether Gawain is truly good. Or whether he even thinks he can be. He helps the ghost of a murdered woman (Erin Kellyman) find her skull, but his first instinct is to selfishly ask what she can do for him in return. He rejects true love with Essel because of her low status, but succumbs to the charms of a highborn woman (also Vikander) who looks identical, helping her commit adultery. The Green Knight's meditative tone culminates in a sublime 20-minute sequence that examines valour vs vulnerability, whether there's any satisfaction to be wrought from a life built on secrets, and what it means to keep your head at the cost of losing your soul.
Recommendation in collaboration with Amazon Prime Video.