Producers: Tim Headington, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston and Theresa Steele Page Director: David Lowery Screenplay: David Lowery Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman and Ralph Ineson Distributor: A24 Films
If you’re looking for a film adaptation of the Old English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” that’s faithful to the text but prosaically told, search out the 1991 Thames Television version—perfectly sound, and a fine trot for students wanting an alternative to actually reading the highly alliterative original, even in the translation of J.R.R. Tolkien, but hardly imaginative from a cinematic perspective. (Avoid both of Stephen Weeks’s misguided versions, 1973’s “Gawain and the Green Knight” and 1984’s “Sword of the Valiant.”)
If, on the other hand, you’d prefer something less literally faithful but far more genuinely poetic, look to David Lowery’s “The Green Knight,” a dark, visually mesmerizing fantasy that embellishes the poem’s concise narrative with episodes that expand intelligently on its essential themes.
The poem, written by an anonymous author in the fourteenth century, is an ostensibly simple chivalric romance in which Gawain, a knight at King Arthur’s court, accepts the challenge of a strange green horseman to participate in a Christmas game. The two will do battle, and whatever wound one inflicts on the other he will agree to endure a year hence at his opponent’s hand. Gawain lops off the green knight’s head, but the strange apparition simply picks it up and rides away.
A year later, Gawain determines to find the appointed place—the Green Chapel—where the knight waits to deal him a similar blow. Along the way he reaches a castle where he is welcomed warmly by the lord and refuses the advances of the man’s beautiful wife as courteously as he can, though he does accept a sash she says will protect him from harm. He then rides out to meet the green knight and accept his fate, though the confrontation has a surprising outcome.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has been the subject of myriad scholarly interpretations, but certainly it’s an examination of the nature of honor, a portrayal of the temptations that challenge the ideals of chivalric (and Christian) virtue, and an invitation to abandon pride and embrace humility—as well as the inevitability of death.
Lowery’s take on the poem encompasses all these elements, but while he follows the poem’s narrative line—Gawain (Dev Patel), at the Christmas celebration of his uncle Arthur (Sean Harris) and his queen (Kate Dickie), accepts the challenge of the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) and then a year later faces temptation at the castle of the Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Alicia Vikander) before riding out to meet the knight as arranged—he expands on it substantially.
Gawain is not, first of all, a terribly heroic figure here; at Arthur’s court he’s a callow hedonist, cavorting with the peasant girl Essel (Vikander, in a double role). He spends a year in gloomy revelry before riding out for his appointment, terrified at the probable outcome. And the entire business has been arranged magically by his own mother (Sarita Choudhury), who’s identified with the sorceress Morgan le Fey, a character in the poem personified by an old lady at the Lord’s castle.
Moreover Gawain’s adventures along the way to the castle, mentioned in a few throwaway lines in the poem, are depicted here in woozily hallucinatory sequences. Gawain is accosted by a young ruffian (Barry Keoghan) in an encounter that not only demonstrates the knight’s lack of foresight but becomes a prophecy of death. He stumbles upon the spirit of Saint Winifrid (Erin Kellyman), who induces him to dive into a lake to retrieve her decapitated skull and rejoin it with her skeleton. He gains a companion—a clever, Reynard-like fox that becomes the quarry of the Lord on the last of his hunting expeditions during Gawain’s stay. He has a vision of huge, ethereal giants crossing the plains. One can find a few of these episodes alluded to in the poem, but Lowery confects some out of other medieval materials.
Lowery also adds to the final confrontation at the Green Chapel with a stunning flash-forward montage that foreshadows the dismal future facing Gawain should he fail his test. The knight accepts his dire fate in order to avoid what seems a worse one.
Lowery has thus respected the original poem while adding his own glosses to it, just as medieval scribes often added marginalia to the texts they were copying. The result is both an essentially faithful rendition and a personal reflection upon it.
It is also a film far removed from a conventional Hollywood-style knight’s tale, as distant as “A Ghost Story” was from something like “Ghost Story”– there is more of the Bergman of “The Seventh Seal” than the Boorman of “Excalibur” here. This is the work of a filmmaker unafraid to experiment, and able not only to impress a mystical, visionary style on his material, but to elicit work from his colleagues—in this case cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, production designer Jade Healy, art directors Christine McDonagh and David Pink, set dresser Jenny Oman, costumer Malgosia Turzanska, VFX supervisor Eric Saindon and SFX supervisor Paul Byrne—that contributes to its realization. (Lowery served as editor himself.) Nor should one overlook the aural component, not only in terms of Daniel Hart’s score, with its interludes of medieval chorale, but also of Johnny Marshall’s sound design.
Lowery also draws fine performances from his cast, particularly Patel, who is onscreen almost constantly and captures the gamut of emotion from hauteur to desperation. Of the others Vikander impresses in her double role and Ineson strikes an imposing pose, while Edgerton cannily evinces the Lord’s insincerity.
Those looking for a typical summer blockbuster should go elsewhere. But for anyone wanting an artistically striking and thematically intelligent epic, here it is.