Utilizing an Arthurian legend as a jumping-off point, David Lowery’s The Green Knight isn’t interested in reality or truth, but relies on an established atmosphere to tell a story that is equal parts allegory and fantastical.
Dev Patel stars as Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), who is not yet a knight. He spends his days drinking and sleeping with his commoner lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). During a feast where Gawain is seated besides the king, the mysterious Green Knight trounces into the court and challenges the group. If anyone should land a blow on him, the victor will earn his axe, though he will return the blow in one year’s time. Gawain takes up the challenge and beheads the Green Knight. The knight picks up his head, laughs and gallops away.
Gawain gains legendary status in his year before he has to meet the challenge, but eventually does partake the quest. Along the way, he meets a variety of characters including a scavenger (Barry Keoghan), a wandering spirit (Erin Kellyman), a wandering fox and a lord (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Vikander again). Will Gawain follow through with his challenge and will he earn his rightful place as a knight of the round table?
The atmosphere is how the film conveys its themes. The score from turns from Daniel Hart shifts between the twinkling of harps and lutes to ominous booms of horns and cellos. The art direction from Christine McDonagh and David Pink lend an abundance of credence to the time period. Each stone castle is besotted with moss and rot, while great halls feel cavernous and populated without being full. The cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo is the true star of the film. Light cascades through the trees, dew falls heavy on the horizon and more is conveyed visually than orally.
Each member of the cast is deftly aware of what Lowery is up to. Patel anchors everything with a youthful innocence but with the built-in nobility required. He also conveys stoic bewilderment at the chaos surrounding him while never questioning his resolve in moving forward on his quest. Vikander has two roles of varying degrees which she embodies well. Essel is the woman Gawain can never truly be with, while the lord’s wife is the temptation Gawain has to avoid. Keoghan, Kellyman and Edgerton don’t have much time on screen, but deliver indelible characters nonetheless.
Lowery delivers the tale filled with metaphors and varying color palettes to convey meaning past the obvious. Every character’s appearance conveys more than just surface level. The fantastical elements are not limited to the titular characters, but expand to a group of migrating giants, talking foxes and shifting timelines in a single scene. The director keeps the audience on their toes and never lets up on delivering the unexpected.
Audiences looking for a straightforward narrative could be turned off by The Green Knight, but if you allow yourself the chance to sink in and engulf yourself in what the film is trying to accomplish, you walk away from the experience for the better.