The ancient world and its stories carry a peculiar weight. When we interact with an old text, stand on ancient ground, or listen to a timeworn proverb, there is a tangible heaviness that adds significance and authority to it. The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is such a story, weighty with the wisdom that comes from holding centuries of secrets. A24’s epic retelling, THE GREEN KNIGHT, moves confidently under the heft of its source and infuses an earthy sensuality that works simultaneously to preserve the ancient feel of the story and to add biting notes of the contemporary. The result is an intricate and impossibly beautiful cinematic tapestry.
Writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun) gives a bold, seductive spin to the 14th-century poem drawing upon the chivalric tradition of the Middle Ages and the mystic storytelling of the old Celtic world. THE GREEN KNIGHT is an arresting tale of conquest, honor, and sex – all that has driven humankind for as long as we’ve been telling stories. The film stars Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, and Sean Harris.
In THE GREEN KNIGHT, young Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) desperately pines for knighthood despite being caught in the temping throes of reckless youth. Gawain is protected from the ills of world, living under the watchful eye of his mother (Sarita Choudhury) and under the shadow of his legendary uncle, King Arthur (Sean Harris). When a mighty knight with emerald skin, aptly named the Green Knight, rides into King Arthur’s court on Christmas and challenges the king young Gawain rushes to confront him. Anxious to prove himself to his uncle and gain the recognition of the knights of the round table, Sir Gawain unwittingly enters into a deadly game with the fabled knight. Sir Gawain must embark on a perilous quest facing ghosts, monsters, villains of all manner, and his own inner demons as he journeys to face the ultimate test.
As a film, THE GREEN KNIGHT contains multitudes. On the surface level, THE GREEN KNIGHT is an awe-inspiring experience and boasts some of the most stunning visuals that have been put to screen. Watching the film brings to mind the massive 11th century Bayeux Tapestry – similarly to the ancient art piece, THE GREEN KNIGHT is overwhelming in its scope and detail. Every scene is beautifully crafted and pulses with the vitality that is imbued in every aspect of the film. Some of the most beautiful cinematography we’ve seen this decade appears in THE GREEN KNIGHT and there will not be another film to release this year that will come close to its beauty and craftsmanship.
A central component of THE GREEN KNIGHT is man’s battle against the baser self. Sir Gawain is plagued by his lust, his sense of self-preservation, and his recklessness, whilst seeking the glory and elevation of honor and knighthood. That being said, THE GREEN KNIGHT is not a purity tale that condemns our base nature and desire. Rather, the lesson Sir Gawain must learn is that desire, the lust for power, and the will to survive – the state of nature – can be refined and aimed towards the nobler path of love, leadership, and the courage to confront what frightens us.
Dev Patel’s performance as Sir Gawain is essential to pulling off both the contemporary appeal and greater vision of THE GREEN KNIGHT. Patel strikes a perfect balance of innocence and sensuality. Patel’s performance is what makes it possible for Gawain to both be the orchestrator of his own destruction and a victim of his own naiveté. As an actor, Dev Patel delivers a studied, sophisticated approach to the character and brings along his own magnetism. It’s a potent blend and, frankly, this critic was positively drunk on Dev Patel’s Gawain.
To call this film a massive undertaking is a huge understatement. The film is, for lack of a better word, significant and it’s difficult to judge it on a single scale. As a visual piece, it is in a class all of its own. In terms of performances, writing, and the ability to inject an Arthurian legend with a blush of modernity, THE GREEN KNIGHT is on solid ground. The film is a mighty two hours and ten minutes long and heavily laden with bizarre narrative turns and burdened with classical language that is not easy to digest. THE GREEN KNIGHT is an immense piece and a triumph, but there will be many viewers crushed under its weight.
A spectacle as grand as THE GREEN KNIGHT is a rare and wonderful thing, making it a required text for film fans of all stripes. Dev Patel is superb and watching his work in THE GREEN KNIGHT is like watching the birth of a legend. With expectations carefully calibrated, there is no doubt that audiences will be astounded by this stunning Arthurian retelling. THE GREEN KNIGHT is not a film that washes over you, it strikes you in the chest and drags you under – and, believe me, you will surrender happily.
THE GREEN KNIGHT, at long last, hits theaters on July 30, 2021.