Dir. David Lowery; Dev Patel, Ralph Ineson
[4 out of 4 stars]
This site sprung into being from the joyous coincidence of Nathan, Jane, and myself studying at Oxford during the same year. While their friendships and our professional work together stand at the top of my favorite things that I carry with me from that time, a semester studying film set during the Middle Ages hovers just a run below. Cinema the world over is rich with stories mined from verifiable and ahistorical sources stemming from that era, and it was during my time studying under a gifted Medievalist that I gained a warmth and appreciation for the genre. Therefore, I have impatiently waited for the much-delayed release of David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021), an adaptation of the 14th-century Arthurian romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Reader, it was worth every second of anticipation.
The Green Knight centers on Gawain (Dev Patel). He is King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) nephew and desperately wishes to join the ranks of his uncle’s fabled knights. Gawain is boyish and headstrong, living in his family home and flouncing around the court in search of sex, drink, and glory, roughly in that order. When Christmas comes and he attends Arthur’s yearly feast, Gawain is enlivened by his uncle’s invitation to sit beside him at the throne. Consequently, when the towering Green Knight (Ralph Inseon) interrupts the feast, proclaiming that whoever defeats him will “lay claim to this, my arm. It’s glory and riches shall be thine,” Gawain bounds to action with Excalibur in hand to face him. The Green Knight informs him that any blow Gawain lands will be returned “one year and Yuletide hence” when Gawain must seek the Green Knight out. Nonetheless, Gawain decapitates the green behemoth only to be shocked into silence when the knight reaches down and picks his head up before riding away. From there, Lowery’s film unfurls a quest less concerned with swordplay than one long, dark night of the soul.
The Green Knight is gorgeous. Lowery, cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, and the various production, art, and costume directors craft a cinematic tapestry worthy of the epic source material. Lowery’s directorial approach revels in the primordial landscape of an imagined Middle Ages. Arthur’s castle is a vast and imposing structure that projects order through every laid stone and careful archway. When Gawain ventures out in search of the Green Knight, each new location reflects his descent into the frenzy of an untamed world. Gray and withering fields bathed in ghostly light give way to green and thorny forests that snip, smack, and dwarf Gawain. The creative team’s dedication to as much practical work as possible results in a world as breathtaking as it is menacing, an aspect best embodied by the Green Knight himself. The Green Knight is designed to appear like a tree that grew weary staying in one spot and manifested a body to go forth and explore. Outfitted in armor that suggests plated bark, the Green Knight’s head is one of the most impressive works of practical effects I’ve seen since Jurassic Park (1993). With a beard of tangled roots and a face of crinkled bark, it is artistry of the highest degree.
With such ample room to play, Lowery makes a meal of every set and scene. He bears no interest in the violent vigor Braveheart (1995) or King Arthur (2004), doubling down on the meditative tone of his previous films Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) and A Ghost Story (2017). The result is an existential exploration of Gawain’s psyche. Gawain may be in search of the Green Knight but Lowery, serving as director and sole writer here, treats that quest as an excuse to examine how the boy becomes a man through facing down his insecurities. Gawain’s quest is the first time in his life he has had to consider who he truly is, and what that means for his future. Stripped of the romantic dreams of knightly quests, Gawain is actually an inadequate adventurer. In one of the scenes that I have been unable to shake since leaving the theater, Gawain is attacked by a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) and his crew. The knight-to-be is utterly outmatched, and is tied up at the base of a tree while the group make off with his horse and belongings. Lowery then lingers, and in one tracking shot set a few yards back from Gawain, circles slowly from the tied up man around his viewpoint, and back to him, where Gawain has been replaced by a moldy skeleton. It is striking, underscoring the tenuousness of Gawain’s quest and mortality. Lowery may repeat the shot and return us to the living Gawain, but that point never goes away; there is beauty but no nostalgic romance in this England. A knight is just as likely to fail and die as remain a legend through song.
Anchoring the entire endeavor is Patel’s entrancing performance. He has a youthfulness about him that, even at 31-years-old, suggests he still holds within him the soul of a much younger man. That is only part of the challenge here, though, for he must also convey a man who has only ever considered his future from the unchallenged perspective of a privileged man-child. At the start of the film, his Gawain is the medieval equivalent of a fuckboy, a boy-of-the-fucketh if you will. Each complication of his quest operates as a step in stripping away the blustery veneer he has carried with him. It is a masterful deconstruction of the masculine mythos floating in the center of most medieval films, those men at arms who Hollywood treat like proto-superheroes. Patel’s performance, guided by Lowery’s gifted writing, posits a leading man in these films who starts with the energy of Errol Flynn, but must face that dashing about in tights through Sherwood Forest only holds if no real danger ever emerges. Witnessing this performance culminates in the final confrontation between Patel and Ineson’s Green Knight is a true delight. I shall not spoil those final moments, but I will say this: Patel sticks every inch of his landing.
Whether intentional or not, the duality of The Green Knight’s title, applicable to both the actual towering Green Knight as well the greenness/inexperience of Patel’s Gawain, captures the glorious layering of Lowery’s project. There are few myths more totalized than that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but Lowery and company manage to gracefully and perceptively reorient the story to challenge its very core. This is a film made to be experienced on the biggest screen possible so you can submerge yourself in the world Lowery has so painstakingly created. Give yourself over to The Green Knight, and you shall be rewarded.