I went into David Lowery’s latest film having never read the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but after watching The Green Knight, I definitely want to read it now. To me, it is always a good sign about how you feel about a movie that when it is finished, you want to learn more about the subject matter.
The Green Knight opens with a striking image of Gaiwan (Dev Patel), alone in a great hall, with a crown being lowered from the heavens onto his head only to burst in flames. It is Christmas morning and Gaiwan is hungover and realizes he spent the night in a brothel with his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). He hurries to get back to Camelot in order to attend a Christmas feast held by his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris). When he arrives, King Arthur asks him to tell a story, but Gaiwan admits that he has no great stories to tell.
At this point, the film cuts back and forth between Gaiwan’s mother, who is taking part in a magic ritual, and King Arthur, who wants someone in the court to tell him a great story. Just at the moment when Gaiwan’s mother (Sarita Choudhury) finishes her magic, the doors to King Arthur’s court burst open with The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) riding on a horse making his grand entrance into the room. A game begins, where The Green Knight challenges anyone to land a blow on him. If they do so, they will win his green axe, but the game is not that simple. Whomever strikes the blow on The Green Knight must then promise to travel to the Green Chapel next Christmas so that he may strike an equal blow in return. Gaiwan believes this is his opportunity to be great and takes up the challenge only to find The Green Knight kneeling, as if begging to be struck down. Gaiwan is perplexed and after much hesitation, lands a fateful blow, decapitating the Green Knight. To the shock of everyone, The Green Knight’s body rises, he picks up his severed head and reminds the court that Gaiwan will have to come see him next Christmas to uphold his end of the game. Time passes and the legend of Gaiwan grows, but he is nervous for his quest as he fears his fate. I won’t go into any further plot details, as that will spoil some of the fun, but Gaiwan encounters beggars, robbers, a fox, giants and a ghost on his path to the Green Chapel.
David Lowery has such a unique style and way about his films (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story, The Old Man and the Gun), that they are very dreamlike and ethereal even when faced with true horror. There are a lot of gorgeous shots on display which include an interesting tracking shot that introduces Gaiwan on Christmas morning, to the use of the camera looking upwards as it enters a castle (upward shots like this occur throughout the film, which also help to establish how tall The Green Knight is), to the haunting use of green throughout, as well as a wonderful sequence where Gaiwan is captured and time passes only to rewind and bring us back to the story. Each shot is crafted with such care, that it reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s work, which I hope Mr. Lowery takes as a very high compliment.
Dev Patel gives the best performance of his career in this film and I do hope he is remembered come awards season. His intensity, his anger, his nervousness, his cowardice, his questioning of what he is even doing is absolutely compelling. It is a tall order when you are a lead actor in a film and said film does not have subplots or side quests and is completely your story to tell for two hours, but I was transfixed and engaged the entire time. Two sequences stand out to me that show such wonderful range for Dev Patel and that is when he meets Winifred as well as the climatic sequence where we find out what happens to him after he arrives to complete his quest. It truly is my favourite performance by an actor so far this year.
Some might find the pace of The Green Knight to be a bit plodding, but I was enraptured by what I was witnessing, even if I did not fully understand what was going on at all times. I also like the decision to have lots of titles on the screen (which ironically James Gunn also did in The Suicide Squad) as it broke the film into chapters or sequences for me, giving me the feeling like I was watching a poem/book come to life on screen. I like how they ended the film, but I know some people will find it to be too ambiguous for their liking. I also have to note that I left when the credits came up, but there is a post-credits scene to the film, which I look forward to seeing when The Green Knight is available digitally.
The Green Knight is a gorgeous, thoughtful, well-acted and finely crafted film. It will make you feel a sense of wonder that is too often lacking in movies today. As I said at the outset, if a film makes you want to learn more about its subject matter, that is always a win. In addition to that, I would love to learn more about the making of The Green Knight, as I have a feeling it will be in a lot of film school programs for years to come.