The Green Knight Beguiles and Amazes
Can a simple game enrich a life? Or will it merely reveal the futility of existence?
These are among the questions The Green Knight compels one to ponder during the course of its journey across medieval landscapes (i.e. present-day Ireland) and into the depths of the soul. A sense of dread can’t help but set in as writer-director David Lowery’s adaptation of the beguiling 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight unfolds, but this hypnotic tale of mortality, humanity, and honor twists and turns in on itself in such a puzzling and enchanting way that by the end enrichment overshadows futility.
Dev Patel stars as Gawain, the nephew of the King (Arthur of course, though not explicitly named as such) who spends his days and nights in less-than-reputable fashion, frequenting brothels to consort with Alicia Vikander’s Essel. When the King’s Christmas feast brings the mysterious Green Knight to court, Gawain’s pride — or perhaps his fear — leads him to take the Knight up on his offer to play a game of life and death, a competition that sends Gawain out into a frightening world to meet his ultimate fate.
Befitting the tale on which it’s based, The Green Knight is thematically dense, bordering on opaque, but — in similar fashion to Lowery’s A Ghost Story — escapes pretension via the undercurrent of emotional honesty that shapes the picture, though the film also benefits from the reunion of several key technical contributors from that previous effort. Frequent collaborator Daniel Hart composes an alternatingly haunting, threatening, and mutedly joyful score reminiscent of many of the pieces commonly paired with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and sound designer Johnny Marshall works wonders with the fantastical soundscape.
However, the flashiest aspect of the film comes courtesy of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, also returning from A Ghost Story. The visual compositions are magisterial, maximizing the location shoot and some impressive effects (especially for a relatively small film, budget-wise) from Weta Digital to create a sense of magic and menace. There’s an argument to be made that the shots are almost too picturesque, coming dangerously close to gumming up narrative momentum with one imposing shot after another, but Lowery’s editing manges to skirt that line as he keeps the audience guessing by varying shot length and playing with temporality in such a way that the beauty in the frames, while often stately, never quite dips to the level of monotony.
It helps too that the actors Lowery has gathered have a collectively high level of charismatic and compelling screen presence. Vikander stands out with a complicated performance and the players filling the more minor roles create an embarrassment of riches: Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Bary Keoghan, Sean Harris, and Kate Dickie all shine in their respective moments. But ultimately the film belongs to Patel — as Gawain reaches the end of his quest, he’s earned our fears and our hopes. He’s far from perfect, but he somehow still represents the innate possibility of humanity.
The Green Knight isn’t perfect either — I expect I may need more than just a single viewing to truly make sense of my feelings about the film — but in many ways is similarly representative of the possibility of the medium. In an era where the stories from the past are often boiled down to their most palatable form, to see a film of this ilk so resolutely opposed to pandering to the audience is refreshing to say the least, and makes The Green Knight one of the year’s must-sees.