Sir Gawain is a member of the Round Table, but when The Green Knight begins, he’s just a kid reluctant to commit himself to anything more than carousing. “I’ve got time!” he insists when asked if he’s managed to become a knight. “I’m not ready yet.” Gawain is played by Dev Patel, and the first time the camera pulls back through the window of what turns out to be a house of ill repute, it finds him sprawled in unbothered slumber in a bed belonging to his favored companion, Essel (Alicia Vikander), looking more like a shipping heir on perpetual vacation than a medieval icon of chivalry. It’s good to be Gawain, who’s beautiful and carefree and nephew to the king (Sean Harris), and who’s invited to sit by the great man’s side during the Yuletide feast. It’s good to be Gawain until we see his uncertainty, the quivers of fear that he’s not putting off greatness so much as he is incapable of achieving it. Asked to share a story about himself, Gawain confesses that he doesn’t have one to tell. “Yet,” murmurs the queen (Kate Dickie). As if on cue, an imposing rider (Ralph Ineson) with a booming voice and a face that looks hewn out of wood appears at the entrance to the hall, wanting to play a bloody game of his own devising.
Arthur pulled the sword out of the stone and ruled Camelot, Merlin was his magical adviser, and Guinevere married and maybe betrayed him with Lancelot, the greatest of his knights. These characters are all famous enough to be left unnamed in The Green Knight, a ravishing and unsettling fantasy from writer-director David Lowery. So, for that matter, is Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), who in this take on the legend is understood to be Morgan le Fay. It’s Gawain who has a name that needs burnishing, which he does by taking up the challenge offered by the title character, sending him on a strange, impenetrable allegory of a quest. There are more straightforward Arthurian tales out there, but Lowery is clearly drawn to the ambiguity of this one, drawing from the version told by a 14th-century poet that history has also left nameless. Rather than tease a particular reading out of Gawain’s journey, the beguiling work functions as a meditation on the search for meaning and direction itself. In accordance with the rules the Green Knight sets out, Gawain is allowed one strike with a sword, which the Knight will, in a year, return in kind. Gawain decapitates the eerie figure, seemingly ending the game — only for the Knight to pick up his head and exit laughing, leaving Gawain honor bound to seek him out so he can return the surely fatal blow.
Before the pandemic intervened, The Green Knight was due to be one of two period pieces starring Patel to hit theaters in 2020. The other was Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, and while The Green Knight is richer and more challenging, the films could have benefited from proximity — an accidental double feature in which Patel plays major figures from the canon. It’s not just the colorblind casting, a benefit so obvious it doesn’t require further explication, that makes these movies so resonant when watched in tandem — it’s the skill with which Patel navigates the pivot from callow to experienced in these coming-of-age costume dramas. At 31, the British actor can still be boyish when he chooses, and in both films, he’s startlingly good at bringing his character across years and twists of fate. The breathtaking high point of The Green Knight is a montage in which decades fly by, and Gawain ages into a stern and ungenerous leader of men and an indifferent user of women. Patel is astonishingly plausible throughout the rush of scenes, gradually hardening into a figure who might as well be made of wood himself.
That’s one of a few instances in the film in which time slips, though chronology feels elusive from the moment Gawain leaves to make his appointment with fate, as though the world outside the walls operates with a pagan wildness that can’t be contained with linear logic. It’s a world rife with ravishingly evocative images — crossroads marked with the skeletal remains of convicts, misty forests filled with child brigands, and battlefields strewn with corpses and populated by a gabby scavenger played by Barry Keoghan. By the time Gawain, starving, gobbles what turn out to be hallucinatory mushrooms, he’s already had an encounter with a ghost (Erin Kellyman) who demands of him a service and courtly civility. The fox who starts keeping him company appears to be real (and possibly an avatar of his sorceress mother, who may have magically arranged for this effort to make a man out of her feckless son, but who also feels a need to protect him). But what about the giants that Gawain encounters while crossing a valley? And what about the jolly lord (Joel Edgerton) who welcomes the would-be knight into his home, and whose flirtatious wife is also played by Vikander?
In the poem, the inscrutable hosts offer a series of temptations that constitute a major test for Gawain — the wife trying to lure him into her bed, and the husband demanding an honest account of what Gawain might be gifted by each day while he’s off hunting, whether it be enchanted sashes or favors from the lady of the manor. But in the film, the young man’s ability to pass these assessments of character are incidental. Gawain longs for notoriety, and when he gets it by stepping up and beheading the Green Knight, is dissatisfied and frightened and longs instead for honor. The Green Knight is about someone who keeps waiting for external forces to turn him into the gallant, heroic figure he believes he should be. But at the film’s heart is a lesson that’s as timeless as any legend — travel as far as you like, but you’ll never be able to leave yourself behind.
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