By Elias Savada.
Patel’s explosive performance pushes this fever dream of a film into award-worthy contender territory.”
Mythical fantasy has met its latest fan, and his name is David Lowery. Yes, he’s aptly called a visionary filmmaker, one who likes to ambitiously spin genres on their heads. He loves to swat away at conventional narratives, often leaving his audiences adrift in wonderment. A Ghost Story (2017) joyfully twisted the out-of-body horror ideal. Casey Afleck, who spent that film under a sheet, returned to the director’s care a year later (joined by a terrific cast anchored by Robert Redford) with the sly heist movie The Old Man & the Gun. His animated remake of Pete’s Dragon (2016) made everyone forget how awful the 1977 original was. Adults rejoiced as much as their children.
And now, Lowery has adapted the 14th-century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, creating something both epic and intimate, chock full of organically stunning set design, unorthodox dramatic structure, and outstanding acting. At the center of the thespian ensemble is Dev Patel, last seen taking on the titular role in The Personal History of David Copperfield, a very clever reworking of the Dickens work, without a hunt of Victorian stuffiness. So. it seems the cinema gods are aligning with The Green Knight, even if those of you who like their movies conventional might disagree. I had a blast.
The path for Lowery to this medieval tale apparently resulted when he came across some action figures from Ron Howard’s Willow, a 1988 period tale that also featured a perilous journey. “I started re-reading the poem and adapting it simultaneously, and three weeks later the script was done.”
The resulting film, shot in Ireland in March-May 2019, enchants with an abundance of fog (enough to cover all of England I suspect) as it takes a delightful adventure through the backwoods of Camelot. As for Gawain, his passage to knighthood is based on a whim. He’s anything but noble, although he has an air of entitlement and privilege. As the film begins, he’s spent another night in a bawdy house in the company of his courtesan, Essel (Alicia Vikander). He’s the impulsive nephew of King Arthur, his mother being the sister of the elderly king. As played by Sarita Choudhury (and written by Lowery), her character has inherited the dark magic elements harbored in the poem by Gawain’s aunt. These pagan powers will help shape her son’s ultimate destiny. But, in the film’s opening chapter, Gawain is quite immature as he makes an appearance at the Round Table. He recklessly agrees to a dare which causes the film’s first beheading —one that forces the flawed protagonist to reluctantly take on a life-altering journey. Obviously, the lad didn’t consider the imposing titular half-man, half-tree creature (loudly voiced by Ralph Ineson) much more than kindling wood. Gawain, chooses poorly, and ultimately will have to set out, a year later, to change the blandness of his unsettled life into an adventurous making-of-a-knight legend.
In transferring the poem to the screen, Lowery has created a cinematic gem, enchanting viewers with a wintry palette as Gawain heads to a Christmas meet-up with his archrival at the Green Chapel, deep in the forest. Lots of earthy tones (courtesy of production designer Jade Healy) are captured by the camera of Andrew Droz Palermo (who also shot Lowery’s A Ghost Story). Composer Daniel Hart, who has collaborated with Lowery on all his features, intones his score with a weird unworldliness, helping set the tone.
Dark skies loom over Gawain’s spiritual journey, the core of the film, with his footing occasionally spiraling into dreamlike disorientation. The trek regains some balance with interesting stops along the arduous way. On a field of dead men, he’s introduced to a clever scavenger played by Barry Keoghan. Later Gawain plays who’s-been-sleeping-in-my-bed with the beguiling St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman), a ghost in search of a kind soul to retrieve her head from a nearby spring. In the days before his fateful encounter with the G.K., he gets a peaceful reprieve from a mysterious Lord in a remote, princely estate. He’s played by Joel Edgerton, who played Sir Gawain in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004). Ha, Ha. If the Lord’s Lady, who tempts her guest with some extracurricular suggestions, looks familiar, it’s because Vikander also plays this character. There’s also a playful fox that befriends Gawain and provides some comic relief.
It’s Patel’s explosive performance that pushes this fever dream of a film into award-worthy contender territory. It’s such a mind-blowing experience you’re likely to believe that someone spiked your concession drink with LSD. The Green Knight makes a triumphant impression, even if it has a lot of depressing moments.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).