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The Green Knight Review: Chivalry Isn't Dead

With over a year of hype behind the film due to its Covid-related release delay and the undefeated power of A24's marketing machine, it wouldn't have been a big surprise for "The Green Knight" to disappoint audiences. Towering expectations are often a film's worst enemy, as the film's evocative trailer, posters and social media teasers have all been crafted to make it feel timely, unique and something you, the viewer, must see, regardless of whether stories set before there were cars make you break out in hives. But if anyone was going to find a way to make this epic Arthurian tale not just palatable to new audiences but positively mesmerizing, it would be writer/director David Lowery, an imaginative filmmaker as nimble stylistically as he is refreshingly thoughtful. 

His adaptation, starring Dev Patel in a career-best turn as Sir Gawain, achieves something very few post-millennial period pieces or fantasy excursions are capable of accomplishing. "The Green Knight" feels urgent and lively without having to betray its presentation of a world so far from our own. Watching the film, it's difficult not to think about the way future "Game of Thrones" showrunner David Benioff tried to imbue an anachronistic flavor to his script for Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 film "Troy," or the deconstructionist bent of Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman's work on Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf." But where so many modern adaptations of historical fiction or old mythology feel, even at their best, like very expensive cosplay from recognizable actors playing make believe, "The Green Knight," with its excellent production design and inventive craft, truly breathes and writhes on screen like a storybook coming to life — not just in front of our eyes, but in the depths of our imagination.

Upon first viewing its pacing may prove more deliberate than the A24 branding might have otherwise suggested, but despite very much being its own beast, it, like the studios' other beloved throwbacks "The Witch" and "The Lighthouse," is a rich and lived-in tapestry that is sure to reward repeat watches and thorough rumination.

Losing my head

Adapted by Lowery from the enduring, anonymously penned poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," the film takes an enviable approach to finding new perspective on such a well-worn tale. In the film, Patel stars as Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) who is not yet a knight and is, in fact, not yet much of anything. We meet him on Christmas Day, at the foot of his king and uncle, lamenting his inability to provide the one merry gift asked of him — to tell a tale of his own that may help to illuminate his personhood. But before he can truly grapple with why his life has no stories from which to share, he finds himself the protagonist of a new one, just beginning.

A haunting and otherworldly figure, the Green Knight (voiced by Ralph Ineson) arrives in Camelot seeking a worthy adversary to play a game with. The Green Knight challenges any man to try to strike him with a blow with the promise that they will win his weapon, but will have to seek him out, one year hence, to receive a blow back in kind. None of the knights of the Round Table want anything to do with this, the ailing Arthur among them, so Gawain sees this as an opportunity to prove his worth, to make his name, to finally have a story to tell.

With Excalibur itself, Gawain lops the Green Knight's head from his shoulders, only for the fearsome creature to lift it up off the ground and say, basically, "see ya next year."

While Gawain's story spreads like wildfire and his name becomes ever-present on the lips of his neighbors, he himself remains unprepared for the fate that awaits him in that green chapel. The year between Christmases passes quickly and he must go on a journey that, as far as he can surmise, can only end with his own beheading. But his fear and trepidation are outweighed just enough by his eagerness to prove himself worthy, so the film takes the viewer on Gawain's journey as he seeks out his final judgement from the Green Knight.

Lowery builds palpable, stomach-churning dread from this quest, as the film's pervasive tenor of doom envelops every passing moment, not unlike the leafy tendrils draped around the Green Knight's earthy abode. But the film's real drama is less about that destination, as its main event is less important than the undercard of forced personal growth Gawain dodges and parries throughout his trip.

At every turn, his legend, and the fictionalized version propagated to the masses from the telling of his incomplete tale, becomes challenged by reality. Gawain, time after time, must confront moral quandaries beyond the ability to be cut down by a sword. Yet he remains convinced that it is his final faceoff with the titular threat that will somehow magically transform him into the man he is meant to be, forcefully unaware that it is these interceding trials that are his true concern.

Ego death

To make this largely internal struggle within the film's protagonist engrossing, Lowery and his collaborators create a gorgeous, rustic epic filled with all the majestical elements that elevate this sort of story. Everyone involved should be absolutely commended for the sterling work on display in making "The Green Knight" feel magical in a way many modern films fail to execute. But even though the talking foxes, fleeting glimpses of giants, and bone-chilling depictions of supernatural knights may get butts in seats, it's the stirring way Lowery updates the source material that will leave the film swirling around your subconscious long after the closing credits.

While one need not be a scholar of Arthurian legend to be enchanted by "The Green Knight," a cursory understanding of the poem and the key changes Lowery made from it help illuminate why this adaptation works as well as it does here in 2021. Where the Gawain of the original text is noble, Lowery paints our Gawain as something of a scoundrel. He is, essentially, a spoiled rich kid coasting off his royal uncle's stature and disappointing his mother on the daily instead of ever doing a single, solitary thing with his immense potential. 

Lowery has said that casting Patel was key to making this interpretation work, because the actor possesses such indisputable charisma and warmth that they could push their depiction as far into certified scoundrel territory as the story required, knowing Patel's face and presence would be enough to endear the audience to him regardless of his character's considerable faults. Patel's inherent vulnerability and the open way his face projects fallibility and inner turmoil gloss over his overt failings long enough to make him easy to root for on this difficult journey. 

The other change, casting Morgana Le Fey Gawain (Sarita Choudhury) as Gawain's mother and not his aunt, allows for her trademark witchy meddling to suggest an alternate reading of the Green Knight's challenge. Rather than happenstance turned to fatalist myth, Gawain's journey more closely resembles a mother's love transcending this earthly realm to finally rouse her man-child of a son out of a self-satisfied, slacker fog that stifles any chance of him becoming a good man, much less a decent one.

It's a brilliant way to make a story about chivalry, an outdated concept to be sure, feel primal and vital. Patel makes Gawain's inner conflict the beating heart of this hypnotic adventure story. Sure, his supporting cast is more than game, with Price's Arthur, Alicia Vikander in a fascinating dual role, and Joel Edgerton stealing the show as a lord who tests Gawain's honor. But it's Patel's turn that truly stuns. 

"The Green Knight" is an enrapturing showcase for an actor so adept at exploring the ever-shifting status of masculinity in society. The way Lowery surrounds Gawain with nesting narratives amplifying the push and pull of wanting to be known and wanting to be true, of wanting to be famous versus wanting to be genuine. Watching him shrink in combat or scurry through the woods in fear are nothing compared to the disappointment of watching him fail the women in his life — and in doing so, his very self.

Patel's bravery as a performer makes for such sharp contrast with Gawain's uncharacteristic cowardice, allowing his flawed hero to sink to the lowest of lows so that finally succumbing not to death, but the death of his persistent ego, feels like one of the most satisfying conclusions to any film you're likely to see this year.

"The Green Knight" is a stunner, every bit the must-see event A24's often exaggerated PR promised it would be.