An otherworldly Arthurian legend that owes as much to The Seventh Seal as to Excalibur, David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a dreamy mood piece that retells the classic hero’s journey as a hypnotic tale steeped in dark magic and supernatural horror. Just as the writer-director’s A Ghost Story reshaped the afterlife into an intensely emotional echo chamber of lingering love and loss, his new film slows down the action of a typical Camelot tale to deliver something richer, more thoughtful, yet laced with chivalric exploits and bizarre encounters. Led by Dev Patel at his most magnetic, this is a fantastical adventure in a genre all of its own.
With five features now under his belt, it’s safe to say that no two Lowery films are alike. Yet as disparate as they are, all of them share a deeply personal feel. That applies whether it’s the outlaw love story of his debut, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, or the interspecies boyhood friendship of Pete’s Dragon.
The Green Knight
Medieval fantasy that defies genre expectations.
Lowery’s cine-literacy also points to his eclectic influences — Terrence Malick’s stamp is all over his first film; the visual textures of The Old Man & the Gun are right out of ‘70s New Hollywood; the transfixing rhythms of A Ghost Story take their cue from the haunting slow-cinema lyricism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul; and the director acknowledges Ron Howard’s Willow as a key ‘80s-throwback inspiration on this new film, which nonetheless feels entirely original in its imaginative world-building.
The A24 release will possibly be too weirdly enigmatic for mainstream tastes, but audiences willing to surrender to its unique spell will savor their time in Gawain’s World. The company is cleverly marketing a limited-edited original tabletop roleplaying game based on the film, which stands to boost its cult potential with fantasy fanatics.
Of all the Arthurian tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as the anonymously published, late 14th century epic poem is known, is among the least familiar to film audiences, having been adapted for the big screen only twice before, in unmemorable Brit productions — Gawain and the Green Knight in 1973 and Sword of the Valiant in 1984, both of them directed by Stephen Weeks.
Lowery sticks to the basic structure of a young man who accepts a challenge and then must pass various tests and temptations on an odyssey of self-discovery to prove his bravery and honor. But his screenplay also freely capitalizes on folk elements derived from Welsh, Irish and English stories as well as the French chivalric tradition of the Middle Ages to flesh out both earthly and shivery supernatural encounters often only alluded to in the original verse. The setup is well-known to many from college English class, but anyone anxious to keep the surprises of Lowery’s take on the poem undiluted should stop reading here.
Gawain (Patel) is not yet a knight in this version but a carousing youth, boozing away his evenings in a whorehouse and sleeping with Essel (Alicia Vikander), a woman beneath his class. The hallucinatory quality of Lowery’s retelling stems in part from the repositioning of the enchantress, Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), not as Gawain’s aunt but as his mother.
Huddling with her witchy handmaidens in a ritualistic circle, Morgan conjures the test of her son’s valor. This hints at the story’s clash between the Christianity of civilization at Court and the Paganism that still rules over nature, while suggesting a feminist interpretation of women pulling the strings. Morgan also sews a talisman into the green sash Gawain will wear for protection, which changes hands a number of times.
Lowery follows the lead of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac by stripping away the glory and gold of Camelot, further indicating the kingdom’s decline by making Arthur (Sean Harris) and Guinevere (Kate Dickie) aged and sickly. During the Christmastime celebrations, Arthur summons his nephew Gawain to sit beside him, expressing regret that he hasn’t spent more time with him. Gawain seems insecure as he surveys the celebrated noblemen seated at the Round Table, aware that he’s there only by virtue of his family connections. But Guinevere reassures him he will take his place among them, being “boldest of blood and wildest of heart.”
The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) — a towering figure who’s half armor-clad man and half gnarled tree in the costuming and prosthetics team’s striking design — enters the Court on horseback and issues his challenge: He dares any knight to strike him with his mighty ax on the condition that they journey to meet him in the Green Chapel one year hence, when he will return the blow. Adding to the incantatory power of the story, the challenge is delivered through Guinevere’s lips in the basso supernatural rumble of the Green Knight’s voice.
When no other knight steps forward, Gawain accepts, swiftly lopping off the Green Knight’s head. But rather than being felled by decapitation, the frightening intruder picks up his severed head and laughs while reiterating the appointment for the following Christmas.
Lowery deftly illustrates how this incident at Court swiftly becomes the stuff of legend by having children watch a puppet-show reenactment of the bloody beheading. “I fear I’m not meant for greatness,” confesses Gawain as his date with the Green Knight approaches. But Arthur, now closer to death and more tender than ever toward his nephew in Harris’ affecting performance, believes in the young man’s potential, even as Gawain continues to doubt himself.
Divided into chapters with literary headings, his arduous journey across a wintry landscape lashed by the harsh elements is marked by portents of danger and death from the start. He meets a wily young scavenger picking valuables from the corpses on a battlefield (Barry Keoghan); the ghost of St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who seeks his help to find peace; a tribe of wandering gentle giants; and a talking fox that leads him to the castle of a lord (Joel Edgerton) and his seductive lady (Vikander again), whose temptations are a test of Gawain’s integrity. That double-casting, along with the presence of a blind old woman, provides cryptic links back to the start of his journey, while also preparing him for his final confrontation with the Green Knight.
Lowery is a gifted visual storyteller, and this textured canvas of grays, greens, browns and other earth tones is perhaps his most sumptuous work to date. While the original poem references Welsh geography, the filmmakers chose Irish locations in County Wicklow, with the 12th century Cahir Castle in County Tipperary (a site used in Excalibur and Barry Lyndon) standing in for Camelot.
From the soggy marshes to the forests wrapped in mist and the lonely mountain roads, cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo captures the chill that grips the land, mirroring Gawain’s gnawing dread. The shadowy interiors of Jade Healy’s production design are equally atmospheric, while Malgosia Turzanska brings distinctive touches and the occasional jolt of vibrant color to the costumes. Patel looks especially dashing in his silver chain mail and saffron cloak.
No less significant than the visuals is the enveloping soundscape created by Johnny Marshall, full of the eerie noise of nature, which works hand in hand with the dense, turbulent beauty of Daniel Hart’s score and its period-appropriate choral passages. The CG elements, overseen by Eric Saindon of Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, are first-rate, though the film maintains a rough-hewn quality that keeps the viewer fully immersed in the medieval time frame.
The actors across the board are strong, notably Vikander, Choudhury and Harris, but this is Patel’s film and he commands every scene. His path from the dissolute libertine of the opening, wild and sexy, to the burdened man who embraces his fate with solemn maturity is a riveting transformation. And Lowery writes a novel ending that allows us to see in a moving vision the fork in Gawain’s destiny represented by his arrival at the Green Chapel.
This is a boldly unconventional film full of beguiling ambiguities, which eschews the hard-charging action and self-consciously modern attitudes that made the King Arthur entries of Antoine Fuqua and Guy Ritchie such generic duds. Instead, it embraces the strange remoteness of myth and Middle Ages lore on its own terms and creates something quietly dazzling and new.