It’s been observed that to create, you must first destroy. There’s truth in this axiom, although at least in the case of Hollywood it’s worth a partial amendment. First, you must understand what it is you are destroying to make way for something new. Take the poems and tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: As centuries old IP, these stories have been adapted countless times, including recently—and often by filmmakers with no greater concern for their appeal than the public domain title they’ve decided to exploit.
Well, the team writer-director David Lowery assembled for his and A24’s The Green Knight understand Sir Gawain intimately. It’s there in the first scene when the alliterative prose from the 14th century poem is quoted near verbatim. And yet, by juxtaposing these words next to Dev Patel’s yet-to-be-knighted Gawain sitting on the throne of Camelot, stoic in all his kingly majesty, Lowery and company signal they’re doing more than just repeating an oft-told yarn. There is a darker force at work here, which can be as unsettling as the image of Gawain’s crowned head inexplicably being lit aflame at the end of this sequence.
The Green Knight is thus both a student of the past and a well-meaning raider of it; this is a film which will honor a story J.R.R. Tolkien singled out as one of the greatest works of English literature, as well as gracefully deconstruct it. There’s a singular, faintly mad vision at play in Lowery’s The Green Knight, and it’s led to one of the best films ever adapted from Arthurian lore.
When we meet Patel’s Gawain in earnest in the movie, he is clearly not yet a knight or a man of honor. After all, it’s Christmas morning when he’s awakened from his stupor in a brothel. As the nephew of old King Arthur (Sean Harris), Gawain is imbued by Patel with an earnest desire to live up to the laurels already bestowed on the Knights of the Round Table, but there’s also something unmistakably desperate and hungry about him when he arrives at his uncle’s court for a feast.
It is there that Arthur invites Gawain to sit by his throne on the high dais, next to Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), for the first time. Several chairs are conspicuously empty, including one intended for Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), but Gawain can sense his station is on the rise, even before the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters. Carved from the literal leafy greens and weeds of the earth, Ineson’s knight better resembles a pagan god than any sort of man-at-arms. Yet it’s arms that concern this Yuletide intruder.
The Green Knight comes offering a game: Any man who has the courage to strike at him with a sword as harsh or kindly as he pleases can do so freely… so long as he agrees to endure the same blow in one year’s time. Gawain leaps at the opportunity to prove his valor, beheading the Green Knight in one smooth motion. The Emerald deity then picks up his rolling skull. It then laughs. A bargain’s been struck and they’ll meet again at the Green Chapel next Christmas.
The setup is painfully simple, including its roots in medieval notions of chivalry and the type of magical realism where talking severed heads are as common as ladies living in lakes. Yet the draw of Lowery’s film is how it encases viewers into this world with surreal splendor. There has not been another movie this year as sumptuously designed or elegantly framed. Nearly every shot of The Green Knight—particularly in the climactic Green Chapel—looks as if it was ripped from a fantasy novel’s cover or a 19th century canvas, and the inclusion of elements like ghosts, giants, and talking foxes (all of which Gawain will encounter on his quest to find that blasted chapel) only heightens the peculiar beauty of the piece.
Lowery is also allowed to lean into the painterly lushness of the piece because of the vitality and humanity Patel brings to every single scene he’s on screen: which is nearly all of them. Despite starring in a Best Picture winner more than a decade ago, Patel is an actor who’s seemed strangely underrated by the industry. As of late, the natural leading man has broken out with winning roles as David Copperfield and in Lion, but as Gawain he may have at last found a vehicle to display the full range of his charisma to a larger audience.
Patel’s Gawain is neither a hero nor a revisionist fiend. Rather he’s a well realized portrait of paradoxes. Here’s a young man who wishes to be noble and true, but is driven on his seemingly suicidal quest to find the Green Knight’s chapel entirely out of fear of shame and what others might say; he fears death to the point of seeming cowardly, and yet is eager to face the Green Knight’s axe, if only to learn what this game might really be about. Gawain is a flawed, potentially doomed protagonist, but Patel keeps the pathos of the would-be knight always at the surface, even during the character’s most scandalous and selfish moments.
The rest of the cast is also formidable in helping The Green Knight weave its enchantment. Despite being covered under makeup and prosthetics, The Witch’s Ineson brings a playfulness to the title character somewhat akin to a Disney character with a bloodlust; and Alicia Vikander pulls double duty in dual roles that it would be a spoiler to detail beyond that they represent twin sides of femininity for Gawain—and the inherent limitations of living your life by chivalric codes or medieval thinking. However, in one of these roles Vikander gets the best monologue in the film where she raises more questions than answers about what this quest is all about… including why is a green knight green?
That may be what challenges audiences most. Despite being based on a well-worn folk tale, The Green Knight is not an easy movie to follow once Gawain accepts his fate and leaves Camelot behind for a wilderness drenched in magic and weirdness. Shrouded in mysteries, both medieval and modern, it is designed to confound and intrigue, and probably be viewed more than once. It is a bit like discovering an ancient tome of witchcraft that’s not intended for young eyes. You’re not entirely sure what its incantations mean, but you cannot look away. For some that will be infuriating, but I found it spellbinding.
The Green Knight opens Friday, July 30.