What does it mean to live an honorable life? What should one do with the time they have left to live? Both are big questions with no clear answer, and both are addressed by The Green Knight, a brilliant adaptation by director David Lowery of the classic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Anchored by a career-best performance from Dev Patel, The Green Knight swings for the fences in its visuals and storytelling. Lowery creates a modern legend that will leave audiences speechless.
In case you slept through eighth grade English, the original poem follows Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table known for his goodness. On Christmas Day, a mysterious Green Knight arrives and challenges the knights and King Arthur to a game. The bravest and best knight may strike any blow on the Green Knight, but that knight will receive the same blow in one year. Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the supernatural intruder — only for the Green Knight to pick up his own head and issue the ominous proclamation, “One year hence.” Gawain must meet the challenge, and over the next year, he confronts his fears surrounding death and his cowardice in the face of it.
This approach to Gawain’s story is different than most, making changes to the story we know in order to illuminate its symbolism better. In this version, Gawain is not yet a knight. He is a young man taking full advantage of life’s pleasures. He drinks liberally and practically lives at a local brothel with his love Essel (Alicia Vikander, who pops up again later in a very different role). His wish is to join his uncle King Arthur, but he fears he is not worthy of the honor. Gawain’s acceptance of the Green Knight’s challenge is a rash move meant to prove himself rather than an experienced knight protecting his king. The change makes all the difference. Watching Gawain slowly make his way to meet the Green Knight again as he confronts the gulf between the man he is and the man he hopes to be is a much more compelling character arc when it is portrayed as a coming of age story.
Dev Patel is the perfect actor to anchor this tale. The audience needs to feel connected to Gawain in order to stay with the often meandering story. His Gawain runs the gamut from devil-may-care playboy to a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Patel is so expressive that we can see all of Gawain’s emotions in his eyes alone. His internal struggle is made external though Patel’s performance, which brings the poem to life in a more accurate way than most adaptations. Patel understands that Gawain is a stand in for all of us and our life’s journey towards death. He gives Gawain a gravity that grounds him in reality even as the tale becomes more fantastic and strange.
Patel is not the only star of the film, with the gorgeous cinematography easily taking second billing. The Green Knight is a feast for the eyes and creates an eerie atmosphere through its visuals. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo does not waste a frame of the stunning locations. One part of Gawain’s quest takes him to ghostly Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman, unrecognizable here from her turn in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) as she asks for help retrieving her head from a pond. The rich color palate in this scene and the trippy effects as Gawain dives in are breathtaking. The Green Knight’s entrance is also perfect, with great editing by Lowery making this scene the punch to the gut that it should be. This film looks like what you see in your head when you hear a story read aloud. It’s dreamy and ethereal, and as a viewer you’re never quite sure of what’s real and what’s fantasy.
Lowery is no stranger to dissecting death and our fears surrounding it. In The Green Knight, he plays with our expectations of what a heroic story looks like. The film is quiet, with a beautiful but sparse score by Daniel Hart. Lowery is comfortable in the silence, leaving much unsaid but making sure the emotion is felt. There are no massive sword fights, climactic showdowns, or rousing speeches. It’s a true hero’s journey, focused solely on Gawain and his inner turmoil. Lowery asks a crucial question: what is a heroic life? Is it embracing death without fear, or is it finding the courage to live in spite of the constant fear of death? If you’re looking for easy answers or a fairytale conclusion, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for a winding and moving contemplation of the kind of life worth living for, The Green Knight more than delivers.
The Green Knight is in theaters now.