When his uncle King Arthur asks him to tell his story to the Knights of the Round Table, Gawain knows that he has none to tell; his life has yet to be truly lived. The Arthurian legend on which this film is based would have Gawain fill that void by becoming a knight, bringing honor to himself and his family. The challenge, created in part by his strong, magic-wielding mother (Sarita Choudhury, “Mississippi Masala,” 1991), is that he must wound or kill the supernatural giant known as the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, familiar from the BBC’s “The Office” and medieval fantasy blockbusters) and one year later must find that adversary and receive the same wound in return. It’s called “the Christmas game.”
All the pieces of a heroic tale are here: the challenge, the quest, the aspiring hero, the lady. But not quite. Gawain (interestingly cast with Dev Patel who was charming and driven in “Slumdog Millionaire,” 2008, and “Lion,” 2016) is far from heroic. Naïve and confused, he cuts off the Green Knight’s head and, after carousing with his mates and having sex with a young wench for almost a year, embarks on a series of quest challenges that he manages to survive, despite lacking the skills of Sylvester Stallone’s John J. Rambo or the curiosity and intelligence of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. Hero, no. Survivor, yes.
“The Green Knight” cleverly subverts the basic tale of challenge and heroism. Talentless and cowardly, Gawain does not even have the passion for his quest that Don Quixote exhibits in that classic subversion of heroic lore. Nor does the Arthurian youth desire to prove himself to a love interest like Dulcinea. In a compelling performance by Patel, King Arthur’s nephew is more visual than verbal, his demeanor revealing an apprehensive, perplexed, unmotivated young man flummoxed at every turn. His final—and existential—encounter with the Green Knight is more comical (and tragic) than filled with the honor he must have imagined would be his reward.
Honor proves elusive to this Gawain, even as he survives—but hardly conquers— a headless saint, ethereal royalty (veteran Australian actor Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander as The Lord and The Lady), naked, ghost-like giants, and a talking fox companion, among other representatives of a magical universe that’s beyond his understanding. More importantly, if Gawain is to become a knight (that is, a man), he must shed the control and protection of women: his mother, a sexual playmate, and his Lady seductress (the latter two played by Vikander, Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner in 2015 for her role in “The Danish Girl”).
The visions created by Director of Photography Andrew Droz Palermo, a frequent collaborator with Lowery, are dark, murky, and now and then out of focus. Cue clouds, mist and smoke. We are as lost as our supposed hero in an ill-lit, ill-understood medieval world. Through the haze, physical images wax and wane. Those of Christianity—Arthur’s and then Gawain’s crowns look more like halos and Gawain carries the instrument of his potential death, an oversized axe, like Christ carried his—intertwine with sorcery: Gawain’s mother’s writings, potions and talismans (she’s the enchantress Morgan le Fay). As in Shakespeare’s day, religion and the mystic world are both in play, at times at cross-purposes.
Award-winning writer and director David Lowery (“A Ghost Story,” 2017) has created a deeply flawed protagonist, a modern Hamlet without introspection. In Lowery’s rewriting of the Arthurian tale, “The Green Knight” lays bare our contemporary climate of dishonor at the same time that it challenges the current penchant for covering up the lack of true heroism with the antics of comics-based superheroes. In the end, Gawain may or may not—the final scene is enigmatic—realize he cannot transcend his fate; he cannot escape what it means to be a mortal after all.
The “people” of the Arthurian kingdom know where honor lies, and where it does not. They have a sense of truth and reality that seems to have been abandoned in the 21st century. They know enough to throw clods of dirt at an unworthy leader.
Lead image: The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) at the Round Table
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: David Lowery
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Ralph Ineson, Sean Harris
Countries: Ireland, Canada, United States, United Kingdom
Runtime: 130 minutes
Other Awards: One nomination to date, the Hollywood Critics Association’s “Most Anticipated Film for the Rest of 2021”
Special one-night availability August 18. From 9 p.m. – 1 a.m., for $20 from distributor A24 (you have 4 hours to complete watching it). See here. (Though we recommend the large screen.)
Update: Starting this Thursday, August 19, “The Green Knight” will be available to rent on digital platforms. A24 has just announced. It will be on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, Fandango Now, Redbox and more (not yet listed on JustWatch).