For those not familiar with all the Arthurian legends and tales, “The Green Knight” might sound like a superhero origins story — but the young man embarking on an arduous and perhaps fateful journey in David Lowery’s dark, dazzling, dizzying medieval fever dream is hardly a traditional hero, as he knows full well about himself.
The young man is not even the title character. The Green Knight is actually half man, half-tree, and he has a way of commanding a room when he makes his entrance, and we’ll get back to him in a moment.
It’s always a thrilling thing when a filmmaker creates an entire world that engulfs us from the opening moments, and that’s certainly the case with “The Green Knight,” which was filmed in Ireland and feels of this Earth but also has a decidedly magical, fantastical and sometimes frighteningly dream-like look. (We are in Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick territory.) Lowery’s adaptation of the 14th century chivalric tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” stars Dev Patel in a career-defining performance as young Gawain, a man of royal lineage who has spent his early adult years guzzling booze and skipping church and coupling with Alicia Vikander’s Essel, a smart and lovely and formidable woman who is well beneath Gawain’s social class, but is far the superior person in terms of character and honesty and heart.
The sickly King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his equally feeble wife Guinevere (Kate Dickie) are hosting a Christmastime feast in a cavernous and dank ballroom in the castle when Arthur surprises his nephew Gawain by having him sit by his side for the first time ever. A few moments later, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) comes barging in on horseback and offers to play a “Christmas game” that goes like this: Anyone in the room can take the Green Knight’s ax and strike a mighty blow — but whatever injury is inflicted, the Green Knight will be able to return the favor in exactly one year.
Emboldened by his uncle’s newfound confidence in him, Gawain picks up the ax and lops off the Green Knight’s head — which doesn’t seem to bother the Green Knight all that much. He laughs uproariously, gathers his head, and says he’ll see Gawain at the Green Chapel one year hence. (It’s not easy being green.)
The year passes quickly, at which point Gawain sets out to meet his fate, encountering all sorts of vagabonds and entities and mysterious characters along the way, including a creepy scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who prances about a battlefield covered with corpses; the ghost of St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who enlists Gawain’s help in retrieving HER severed head, and a seemingly mad lord (Joel Edgerton), who welcomes Gawain into his home and is hell bent on hunting wild game for him.
“The Green Knight” contains some beautifully written passages, and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo delivers one award-worthy visual image after another. Patel is a wonder as the suitably frightened, sometimes weak-willed, yet determined Gawain, who often looks like he wishes he were back home, spending his nights soaked in wine and lost in the embrace of the lovely Essel, and keeping his head down when the Green Knight roars into the room.