The best word I could think of as I sat in the theater, watching the credits fly by on screen for David Lowery’s new film The Green Knight, was “wow.” My thought process was soon able to transcend that single word and I could form coherent thoughts. Here they are.
Adapted from the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this hybrid fantasy/drama features Dev Patel as the titular Sir Gawain, faced with a choice one day in King Arthur’s court. A knight (played by the unrecognizable, yet incomparable Ralph Ineson) offers a challenge, for any member of the court to lay a blow against him with his own axe. However, one year hence, the knight will be able to do the same to the brave one who dares face him. The brash Gawain, seeking glory and recognition, decapitates the knight, but of course that isn’t the end. For Gawain, the story has only just begun.
As a critic, this film is hard to review. As a viewer, time lost all control as I was pulled into a fully-realized, dirty, grimy, brutal fantasy world, in which the rules of magic are never explained and you aren’t sure what’s real and what isn’t until the film’s conclusion…and even then, not every question is answered. I would be lying if I said this film didn’t spark conversation with the people I saw it with — in fact, The Green Knight led to some of the best film discussions I’ve had in a while.
One thing you should know about The Green Knight: it’s more an artistic experience than it is a straightforward film. Gawain’s quest is littered with short vignettes (most lifted directly from the poem), and we follow him as he encounters creatures and people alike in sequences ranging from purely visual experiences to dialogue-heavy fireside chats. Wherever he is, though, there’s a lesson — some are more apparent than others, but as Gawain inches closer and closer to his destination, we find it’s all about the inevitability of death, and the meaning of courage. Dev Patel plays these especially well, and it’s clear he was the perfect choice for the role. There aren’t many actors who can convey a character journey so well through facial expressions and body language.
The visual effects are nothing short of spectacular — in fact, the cinematography as a whole is on another level. I won’t hesitate to say The Green Knight is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. At some points, director Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo seemed more concerned with showing incredible landscapes and showcasing innovative shots than progressing the story. In fact, there were times when the story simply grinds to a halt — in the theater, after the movie was done, a woman loudly exclaimed “I almost fell asleep more than once!”
Everything is a symbol in The Green Knight. This makes sense, for a 700-year-old poem that’s likely been analyzed to death by classics scholars. I’m glad I thought about it for a while before writing my review, because the film does indeed give you a lot to ponder. For the first third, I didn’t know how I felt about this movie — and then I realized what it was doing. It’s showing us Gawain’s self-believed last days, in a self-contained adventure, in which we feel what he feels. We learn these lessons along with him, we experience what he does, we feel his pain and his losses. Movies that make you empathize with the main character (in this case, the audience surrogate) to this extent are few and far between.
Additionally, the score, by Lowery regular Daniel Hart, is one of the best parts of the film (which I don’t say lightly — The Green Knight is full of “the best parts”). It often overtakes the senses, and not in a bad way — the music carries the perfect amount of melancholy, inevitability, victory and sadness.
The Green Knight is not just a film. With Dev Patel in the lead, and an engaging, age-old tale, it’s an absolutely incredible experience. The pacing may slow at points, but don’t let that fool you — it’s just biding its time. The Green Knight is destined for the glory its main character seeks. [Grade: A]