The Green Knight might not be the feel-good film of the summer. Something about the way David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon) directs The Green Knight brings us up close and personal with our own mortality. The charming way Lowery’s story is delivered through lead actor Dev Patel (Hotel Mumbai, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) makes audiences feel the struggle of life and death right along with him.
At the film’s start, Gawain (Patel) is a nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris, Mission Impossible: Fallout, The Banishing) and is noteworthy among the lords of His Majesty’s Round Table. He is passionate in life and erm, love, but does not aspire to a greater vocation in life. He has a favoured woman, Essel (Alicia Vikander, Tomb Raider) who he enjoys visiting, and while it’s never spelled out, she is likely a woman of low birth.
Gawain also has a mother, Morgan Le Fey (Sarita Choudhury, A Hologram for the King), a courtier of King Arthur’s court and, in this film adaption, she is sister to King Arthur. And, given what audiences all know in the collective imagination, she’s secretly also very experienced in witchcraft. Morgan also does her best to pretend not to notice Gawain’s drunken sexual exploits (she’s probably too busy with her witchcraft).
Gawain’s life as he knows it turns upside down the day that he is celebrating Christmas, making merry at King Arthur’s court. A visitor (Ralph Ineson, The Witch) comes riding into King Arthur’s court, with skin of tree bark, and arms and head of branches. He is a man…but more like a tree, than a man. He is the Green Knight for which the movie is named. He possesses an axe and issues a dare to the court-any of King Arthur’s knights who will strike him a blow, will be struck a blow in the exact same way, within a year.
Hastily, Gawain volunteers to prove his worth, and-oops!-beheads the Green Knight. Now, the Green Knight must answer with the same blow in kind. In one year’s time, Gawain must travel forth to the Green Chapel, find the Green Knight, and receive his blow. In the process of finding the Green Knight, he finds many supporting characters, such as the mysterious Lord (Joel Edgerton, Bright) and his Lady (beautifully portrayed by Alicia Vikander again).
As a lover of fantasy, I was drawn to this movie as soon as it came out. The Green Knight promised to be a strange retelling of an Arthurian story that tugged at my memory. Upon watching the trailer, I immediately recalled it as a story I remembered reading in university, the story of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. “Oh yeah, The Green Knight!” I must have said to myself. “The one where he (the Green Knight) plays a game with Sir Gawain, but he’s kind of a dick about it.”
Indeed. (I definitely wrote a twenty-page paper about that story, though I cannot speak to its quality.) It’s both bold and ambitious for Lowery to choose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or any Arthurian myth, as his source material. And of course, to choose the beloved Dev Patel as his Gawain, an actor who first captured audiences’ hearts and showed that it’s not about the destination, but about the journey, in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.
Patel brings something special to the film not simply because he is an actor of colour. He lends the role a certain gravitas-and sensitivity-that would be difficult to replicate with any other actor. With Patel in the lead role as Gawain, he cuts a swoon-worthy, brooding figure. Taking root in audiences’ hearts as the tall, dark, and handsome knightly type, you simply cannot picture a better Gawain than him to tell the story.
There’s something about Lowery’s tone that works well with Patel, Vikander, Edgerton, and Ineson. Ralph Ineson in particular is a treat to watch as the Green Knight himself, and his deep, rumbling voice belies a bit of mischief here and there. Even before Gawain proclaims he believes in the supernatural world, the audience sees that otherworldly beings are not to be trifled with. Gawain recognizes quickly that he has written a check he is loathe to cash.
Throughout a good half of the film, Patel is carrying the narrative depicting the trials and tribulations of Gawain. But Patel tells the story with grace, being at turns both vulnerable and brooding. In a story with a premise where one should be sure of what happens, Patel’s honesty in his screen presence keeps one watching and guessing right up until the end.
In English literature, Sir Gawain was held up as a shining example to other knights of King Arthur’s court of what a knight could look like and what kind of values he should embody. And what virtues he should possess, as Sir Gawain’s journey was often fraught with peril and not without a little temptation. Without a lot of righteous moralizing, Lowery’s film The Green Knight makes this journey accessible to all. The Green Knight shows that, if we all arrive at the same place in the end, then we must be honourable and honest with the time that is given to us.