The Green Knight review: Dev Patel is no chivalrous hero in this exquisite medieval fantasy

Lowery’s film doesn’t feel modern, per se, but it has its own sense of vitality and immediacy

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 23 September 2021 16:45
The Green Knight trailer

Dir: David Lowery. Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson. Cert 15, 130 mins

The Green Knight finds the most glorious way to introduce itself. We open on a king, enthroned. His head is wrapped in flames. He is the burning idol – the death of the old ways, so that the new can take hold. We hear a voice from the dark, promising us “a new tale” from the pages of Arthurian legend. Cut to: a burning building, a fair maiden, and a knight pulling sword from sheath. But these are not the heroes of David Lowery’s radical retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th-century chivalric romance. As the camera pulls back, retreating behind a window and into the musty quarters of an early medieval brothel, we’re introduced to our Gawain (Dev Patel) – right as he’s splashed out of his drunken stupor by lover Essel (Alicia Vikander), armed with a bucket of water.

The Green Knight doesn’t feel modern, per se, but it has its own sense of vitality and immediacy. Lowery replicates whichever parts of the original verse suit his needs, while refiguring everything else. Perhaps that’s the only logical way to approach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is so conflicting and, at times, inscrutable that its meaning has puzzled academics for centuries. Only those with the misfortune of living through crusades and plague epidemics will ever know its truth. That should give any artist the licence to take what they want from it.

Patel’s Gawain is not the living embodiment of chivalric values that the verse presents him as, but someone who seeks knighthood with no consideration for the sacrifices it demands. To him, greatness is merely a pretty cloak to wrap oneself in. His mother, the sorceress Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), seems to know better. She summons the mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) to the court of King Arthur (Sean Harris), where he lays down a challenge: whatever blow Gawain strikes must be returned, in kind, a year later. This will be the true test of his character.

The casting of Patel is a stroke of genius. He softens Gawain’s arrogance and deepens his soul, so that the audience can’t help but root for his success. There’s a particular look that the actor does so well – a wide-eyed jolt somewhere between wonder and bewilderment – that can be read a hundred different ways. In 2019’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, that look belonged to a man in possession of an ever-shifting identity, bouncing from household to household. In The Green Knight, it carries us through an impossible world of fantasy – occupied by giants and talking foxes, lords (Joel Edgerton) and scoundrels (Barry Keoghan).

Gawain’s (Dev Patel) ochre-dyed cloak stands out beautifully against the film’s earthy, frost-bitten backdrops

Malgosia Turzanska’s costumes are exquisite, pushing the boundaries of historical possibility while remaining grounded and tactile. Royal crowns are embellished with saintly halos. Gawain’s ochre-dyed cloak stands out beautifully against the film’s earthy, frost-bitten backdrops. And the Green Knight himself, who simply glows with the colour in the old Arthurian legends, has here been transformed into the pagan figure of the Green Man. Knotted branches now sprout from his face and limbs.

According to the medieval histories, Arthur and his knights fought their battles at some point during the fifth and sixth century – a cultural crossroads in history, where the Christian faith swept across Britain and challenged the old pagan beliefs. That internal tension is central to Lowery’s interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The lessons his hero learns are chiefly about what is taken and what is given in return, and how power determines each of these interactions.

At one point, he crosses paths with a ghostly Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman), the famous Welsh saint who fought off her rapist and was punished for it by losing her head. Vikander, in a secondary role, later delivers a speech about the irrepressible force of nature that all inevitably succumb to, when their bodies decay and return to the earth. The Green Knight has bottled that feeling of ancient foreboding – it’s Arthurian legend at its most rich and enigmatic.

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