In its earliest form, storytelling functioned as instruction as well as entertainment. The myths and legends of our deep past offer morals and guidance for how to move through the world with grace, understanding and humility. In some cases, such as in fairytales, these lessons were didactic, crystal clear in their intention. In others, meaning needed to be arrived at in the mind of the listener, interpreting the metaphor at the heart of the story. This method is fundamental to the Arthurian legends, an epic medieval romance on the exploits of the benevolent British monarch King Arthur and those who populated his court at Camelot. The Arthurian legends have never been served well by cinema; with a few exceptions such as Disney's gorgeous animated film 'The Sword in the Stone' (1963), there haven't been many satisfactory adaptations of these stories. The problem is often that mystery and metaphor are sacrificed for fantasy and action, robbing the stories of their central conceit. Rejoice, then - for we have finally been gifted the Arthurian film of our dreams in David Lowery's hypnotic, hallucinogenic, rigorous and remarkable 'The Green Knight', one of the most anticipated films of the last few years.
Gawain (Dev Patel, 'Lion', 'The Personal History of David Copperfield'), the nephew of the King (Sean Harris, 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout') dreams of greatness and chivalry, but doesn't seem inclined to pursue it. An opportunity is presented to him when a mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, 'The Witch') appears at court on Christmas Day and offers a challenge - any man brave enough may fight him, but if that man lays a blow on him, he must engage in a rematch one year hence at the Green Chapel, where the Knight will deliver the same blow back to him. In a moment of bold arrogance, Gawain delivers a fatal blow to the Knight, but when the Knight rises again before him, Gawain realises he must now face that same fatal blow one year from now. As the terrible day approaches, Gawain rides out to meet the Green Knight, but his journey will be full of trials and dangers, all of which test his honour, his fortitude and his courage.
On the surface, Lowery gives us exactly what we would want from an Arthurian adventure - dreamlike imagery, overwhelming atmosphere, the sense of a complete world full of magic and mystery; this hasn't been the problem with previous Arthurian films. John Boorman's 'Excalibur' (1981) certainly looks pretty, but the film itself is emotionally empty. The true spectacle of 'The Green Knight' is the extraordinary emotional quest that Gawain must undertake, the aesthetic integrity supporting the thematic and emotional integrity of the film. We meet Gawain as a lost rogue, not yet a knight and with no story of his own to tell. The trails he faces on his journey to the Green Chapel are a series of provocations, just as his initial confrontation with the Green Knight had been, where how he chooses to act will define what sort of man he is. If he chooses the path that serves himself at the cost of others, if he forsakes honour for glory, then the retribution is swift and devastating.
The beauty of the Arthurian legends is in their episodic nature - a series of strange occurrences almost like challenges in a video game where the right choice will see you rewarded - but where other filmmakers may have rejected the episodic nature, Lowery wisely embraces it, trusting in the narrative arc of Gawain's journey to act as a skeleton and for the thematic threads between each moment to bind them together. It would also have been easier to simplify or overexplain what we see in the film, but once again, Lowery trusts in the metaphor of this centuries-old tale, that we the audience will find our way through these dark woods just as Gawain must. Some might see Lowery's choices in the film as defiantly incongruous, but just as was the case with 'A Ghost Story' (2017), his choices are led by a generosity of spirit and a wild imagination rather than artistic arrogance. The answers to the mysteries of 'The Green Knight' are there if you look with open eyes and open heart, just as Gawain must. In many ways, with the degree to which fantasy cinema feels the need to spoon-feed us these days, it's both refreshing and empowering to be given this much autonomy as a viewer, to be allowed to find our own way to our own meaning.
David Lowery has long been one of the most intriguing independent American filmmakers, with work ranging from 'Pete's Dragon' (2016) to 'The Old Man & the Gun' (2018), but in 'The Green Knight' he reveals his full power as a visual storyteller. The construction of this film is remarkable, each frame a rich tapestry of visual, aural and sensorial delights. There's a gorgeous balance of the wild fury of nature and careful artifice, holding us in a strange netherworld between being asleep and awake. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo and production designer Jade Healy craft some of the most hypnotic images of any film in years, a mist-filled fantasia of deep forests, impossible castles and limitless skies, a world that feels alive and green and active. These images are complemented by Lowery's own razor-sharp editing, knowing when to let a moment sit and where to throw us into a rhythmic hallucination, and the world of the film is brought together by Daniel Hart's haunting and majestic score.
The true spectacle of 'The Green Knight' is the extraordinary emotional quest that Gawain must undertake, the aesthetic integrity supporting the thematic and emotional integrity of the film.
Where the heart of this film lies though is in its uniformly superb performances. Dev Patel is one of those actors who has always threatened greatness, but it seemed that no film had been able to offer him the chance to show just what that greatness might be. That moment has finally come, with Patel delivering a spectacular performance as Gawain. The character is the perfect showcase for his emotional intelligence, his commitment, his physicality, and his tremendous charisma. We see Gawain navigate his youthful arrogance through endless internal conflict, terror, defiance and capacity for generosity, and when the film reaches its final act, where everything Gawain understands about himself is thrown into chaos, Patel tackles this challenge with powerful sincerity. His performance in 'The Green Knight' is the finest of his career so far, and establishes him as one of the most exciting and intriguing actors of his generation.
Lowery also ensures that the supporting cast is just as strong as his lead, and that they all have an innate understanding of the world and story he is trying to evoke. Alicia Vikander ('Ex Machina') is the best she has been in years with her beguiling double role in the film, at times its most passionate heart and at others its most mysterious. Sean Harris and Kate Dickie ('The Witch') beautifully embody the gravity of the Arthurian legends as the King and Queen, while Sarita Choudhury ('A Hologram for the King') captures their primal mystery as Gawain's Mother and Barry Keoghan ('The Killing Of A Sacred Deer') their bombastic danger as the Scavenger. There's also incredible and sympathetic work from Erin Kellyman ('Solo: A Star Wars Story') as the devastating Winifred and Joel Edgerton ('Boy Erased') as the gentle Lord. And tying the ensemble together is the tremendous Ralph Ineson as the magnificent Green Knight - who, even with the remarkable costume and make-up, is still able to bring his quiet menace, humanity and gravitas to the character.
Halfway through watching 'The Green Knight' for the first time, I was struck by a realisation: this is a film the likes of which I'd been waiting my whole life to see, without ever realising it. It is a magnificent achievement, a film born from deep in the bowels of the earth, shaped and sharpened by time itself. To watch it is to tumble into a dream, where the complications of what it means to be human are stripped away and we are left with the deepest of questions - what do we do with the time we are here, how do we account for the manner in which we move through the world, what does it mean to be a good person? The idea of chivalry is at the heart of the Arthurian legends and very much in 'The Green Knight', that being a knight is not about the space we carve in the world for ourselves with sword or steel or violence, but in the small acts of kindness we are called upon to do every day. Death is an inevitability for all of us, just as it is an inevitability for Gawain in the Green Chapel on Christmas Day, but when that moment comes and we look it in the eye, what will we see when we turn back and look at the life we led?
Being a good person is the greatest of quests, with endless trials to trip us up along the way - but just as our good choices define us, so too does the manner in which we take responsibility for our bad ones. David Lowery has given us access to this fundamental journey through this beautiful, hypnotic and incredibly powerful film. It's devastating that we in Australia won't get to see this in a cinema where the film can wrap itself around us, but even on a television screen, it loses none of its magic. 'The Green Knight' is easily one of the best films of the year.