Dev Patel in The Green Knight (2021)
Epic is the first word that comes to mind on first watch of David Lowery’s The Green Knight. The A24-produced film is a medieval tale told in a hypnotic trance. It’s an immersive experience that swirls in thought-provoking ideas and leaves plenty behind to digest. It’s also a deeply challenging experience to watch unfold. The Green Knight feels lightyears away from fully grasping, yet so incredibly intimate and confronting in nature. The story moves in bewitching ways, with mysterious magic reverberating from the screen. It’s a constant wonder where the film is going, which epitomizes the enigmatic quality of Lowery’s storytelling. He has the ability to craft an absorbing world that feels experimental and grounded at the same time. Lowery engages in so many interesting themes, from lust and chivalry to protecting the environment. With poetic symbolism and vivid cinematography, The Green Knight floats like a painting. It’s a complex tale of knighthood that questions how far one would go to uphold such a title and claim its responsibilities (and consequences). In a time when honor is everything and when courage makes kings, a fitting tagline, the protagonist’s desire to prove his worth to his kingdom drives a deep character journey through a medieval fantasy.
Adapted from the 14th-century poem of the same name, The Green Knight follows the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), the headstrong nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris). After striking a mysterious gigantic tree creature known as The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) in a sudden duel, Gawain agrees to embark on a quest one year later to confront the Knight, under one condition. The emerald creature is allowed to strike him back in the same manner that he imposed upon it. Does Gawain possess the courage to allow a pre-determined fate bestowed upon him? What will he do when met with mortality? In a test for the ages, Gawain stumbles into a realm of schemers, ghosts, a talking fox, and other mystical entities in his journey to face the ultimate challenger. The film is a stunning meditation on the inevitability of death, as well as how fragile and precious time on earth really is.
Gawain is a fascinating protagonist to lead this journey of self-discovery and defining one’s character in crucial moments. Gawain explores what it means to adopt knighthood; what are the responsibilities and consequences, what does the life of a knight look like, what does strength look like. The film is full of beautiful dreamlike sequences where he’s called upon to define his character. Each new mystical character introduced along the way to the Green Knight gives added depth to Gawain and powerfully reflects his own headspace. Are these characters a manifestation of his self-worth? Are they the visual embodiment of who he thinks a knight must collide with on the path to nobility and chivalry? The romanticism of Gawain’s journey, and the realization he comes to about real courage, is spellbinding to watch unfold. The film swirls in resonating ideas about the price of ambition, and the question of whether one can maintain a good-hearted nature in a lust for success. The final act in particular is a shattering epitome of the difference between playing a part and being true, between wanting the glory of a title and being ready to give oneself up to the mercy of a higher calling.
The character work in The Green Knight is an impressive achievement, not only with the protagonist but also the enigmatic supporting characters he collides with on his journey. The scheming Scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who weasels into frame with dubious curiosity, the regal Lady (Alicia Vikander) and scruffy Lord (Joel Edgerton) who welcome Gawain into their kingdom, Gawain’s Mother (Sarita Choudhury) keeping watchful eye back at Camelot. The Lord and Lady epitomize the more lustful aspects of the film, where a sensual love triangle is formed. In retrospect of watching the film, there is something slightly illusionary about these characters, as though they are being projected from Gawain’s own psyche. In any case, they each represent wildly different paths in Gawain’s quest to reach the Green Knight, one of the more interesting characters in the film. So much about the relationship between Gawain and the Knight brings up a resonating parallel to human beings vs. nature. In this tale, nature strikes back against the damage humans have so brazenly inflicted upon the earth. Gawain is at the mercy of nature, as he is with the inevitability of mortality. All the while tries to hold onto a sense of goodheartedness in his chosen path to knightly success.
David Lowery maintains an incredible sense of curiosity from beginning to end; the story goes to earthy, mysterious places that feel wondrous and unexpected. Gawain’s disillusionment of trying to follow a path to greatness while being at mercy to a higher power is captured so well on screen. The pacing of the film feels like a puzzle, without the frustration of looking to piece everything together all at once. The Green Knight is a beguiling story to follow. There are many interesting moving parts to unpack and digest. The film leaves behind a strong desire to return to this mythical world for more, thanks in large part to the actors Lowery has assembled and the atmosphere that has been so beautifully crafted. With a mighty performance by Dev Patel, the character of Gawain is brought to life so vividly. His curiosity and sheer ambition for honor are such a treat to watch. As well, the ruinous depths his character falls into in the final act of the film are a staggering display of Patel’s talent. His work is a wonderful embodiment of the internalized journey Gawain goes on, from romanticizing his quest to being overwhelmingly humbled by nature. The supporting cast turn in solid performances and most make a memorable mark, notably Alicia Vikander as Lady and Sean Harris as King Arthur. Most of all, the stunning voice work by Ralph Ineson as the titular Knight. His voice really brings the character to another level and commands the screen. Adding to the enchanting experience of the film are strong mystical characters, from a talking fox and headless ghost to giants in the sky. As well, Daniel Hart’s haunting score which kicks in at the most fitting times, and the absolutely beautiful cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo. Every frame looks like a painting.
The film is a hypnotizing, striking tale of honor in which there is plenty to unpack and ruminate on. Lowery’s adaptation of a rich text brings magic to the story that feels endlessly full of new discoveries and interpretations. There’s a strangely inviting quality to this film; the story has a magnetic pull and fires on all cylinders. With strong performances, stunning cinematography, and an evocative score, the story comes alive as a fascinating study of character. The Green Knight is an unforgettable psychological tale of medieval times, casting a bold spell and maintaining its enchantment.