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'The Green Knight' Fulfills A Quest To Find New Magic In An Old Legend

Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, in <em>The Green Knight.</em>
Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, in The Green Knight.

As powerful a grip as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table still exert on our imaginations, there haven't been enough great or even good movies made about them. There have been some, of course — I'm fond of the lush Wagnerian grandeur of John Boorman's Excalibur and will always love Monty Python and the Holy Grail — but they're more the exception than the rule.

So I mean it as high praise when I say that I've never seen an Arthurian sword-and-sorcery epic quite like The Green Knight. With this boldly inventive adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an anonymously written but enduring 14th-century poem, the writer-director David Lowery has taken a young man's journey of self-discovery and fashioned it into a gorgeous and moving work of art.

That young man is Gawain, played by a superb Dev Patel, who slips into these medieval trappings as effortlessly as he did the Dickensian world of last year's The Personal History of David Copperfield. His character is a reckless youth, a kind of Middle Ages slacker whom we first meet in a brothel with his lover, Essel, played by Alicia Vikander. His uncle, King Arthur, is played with a benevolent smile by Sean Harris.

On Christmas, Gawain attends a Christmas celebration hosted King Arthur, but the festivities are interrupted by the Green Knight, a mysterious half-man, half-tree figure on horseback. He suggests "a friendly Christmas game," inviting anyone present to strike him down — on the condition that they must reunite a year later so that the blow can be returned. The impetuous Gawain accepts the challenge and decapitates the Green Knight with a sword. But the Green Knight gets up, calmly retrieves his head and leaves, pausing to remind Gawain that they will meet again in one year.

All this is drawn from the original story, with a few intriguing tweaks: In Lowery's retelling, Gawain is the son of King Arthur's sister, the scheming enchantress Morgan le Fay, played here by a quietly imposing Sarita Choudhury. She gives Gawain a magical green sash for protection as he sets out the following year to meet his fate. Is he doomed to lose his head, or will he, like the Green Knight, somehow survive the encounter?

Alicia Vikander and Dev Patel appear in a scene from <em>The Green Knight</em>.
/ A24
Alicia Vikander and Dev Patel appear in a scene from The Green Knight.

That's just one of many questions looming over Gawain's long and episodic journey, during which he'll meet many characters who may help or hinder him. Erin Kellyman plays Saint Winifred, a ghostly maiden who asks him for a favor. Joel Edgerton turns up as a hospitable lord whose castle is a maze of strange secrets.

While his quest unfolds at a leisurely pace, it never plods or drags; I felt hypnotized in my seat.

But for the most part, Gawain travels alone, with only a friendly fox to keep him company. While his quest unfolds at a leisurely pace, it never plods or drags; I felt hypnotized in my seat. Lowery and his cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo summon up one astonishing image after another as they follow Gawain over misty mountains and through mossy forests. At every step, our hero tries to follow a knight's code of chivalry, performing acts of kindness and resisting the many temptations that present themselves.

Like the original poem, the movie is open to more than one interpretation. You don't need to be a theologian to spot the Christian overtones in the story, in which the Green Knight looms as a kind of Christ figure and Gawain is his lowly disciple. Then again, you could also see the Green Knight as a pagan creation, an avatar of the natural world with which humanity will always find itself in conflict. These tensions, between pagan and Christian belief, are perfectly expressed in Patel's performance, which is both a piercing study in moral anguish and a lusty, charismatic star turn. Lowery's film may be a meditation on good and evil, but it also invites us to contemplate the erotic allure of its leading man.

The intensity of the spiritual inquiry in The Green Knight reminded me of quite a few non-Arthurian classics, like Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. I was also reminded of Lowery's own films, like the Disney remake Pete's Dragon and A Ghost Story, which put their own offbeat spin on familiar myths and archetypes. The Green Knight is another kind of ghost story, full of eerie visions and strange spirits. It leaves you feeling assured that the old legends, and the movies they inspire, are still capable of conjuring their share of magic.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.