There’s no one moment that will let you know that The Green Knight is going to be something special. It is apparent from the beginning that you are about to watch something excellent, both the production design and casting tell you that, but it’s not until nearly in the second half that you may realize you’re watching something truly great.
A knightly quest, and a chivalric romance, The Green Knight is a film that has so many questions and diversions that it could have been a mess, but instead is one of the most purposeful and human films of the year, and one of the best, too.
The Green Knight opens with Gawain (Dev Patel) waking up in a brothel. A young man shirking his responsibilities to a family he feels unseen by. As he arrives home, he bathes and heads to a Christmas banquet with his uncle, King Arthur (Sean Harris). The kind pulls him to the head of the table and begs Gawain to tell him a story so they might get to know one another. This is the first scene where you can see the depth of Patel’s performance, as he communicates with only his eyes a cascade of emotion as he is suddenly visible.
He has no story to tell, he explains, only to be interrupted by the queen –Kate Dickie– who reminds him that he has no story yet. On cue, his mother and her coven conjure a monstrous Green Knight to make a challenge: face him, land a blow, and then in one year, return to receive the same blow in turn. When the Green Knight offers no resistance, the impulsive and desperate to prove himself Gawain cuts off his head with a single strike. There’s a moment of revelry until the knight stands back up, picks up his head, and reminds Gawain of the bargain, and rides off. A year later, he sets off on a quest to face his destiny.
The bulk of the film is made up of the quest and the various sidetracks he ends up taking. An encounter with a scavenger and brigand played by Barry Keoghan, with an otherworldly woman looking for something she has lost played by Erin Kellyman, and a mushroom fueled trip through a valley populated by giants.
Let me stress this now: this movie might be the most visually arresting film I’ve seen this year, from the production and costume design to the naturally lit cinematography and the seamless blend of practical and CGI effects (including the CGI fox that almost passes for real), this film is a wholly unique visual experience while remaining in a familiar setting.
The Green Knight himself, a creature made of flesh and blood but also wood and vine, is beautiful and terrifying to behold and evokes the monsters of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (and that’s before his very step makes grass and moss spring forth from the cracks in the floor).
The quest itself is one of dichotomies: naivete vs wisdom, virtue vs temptation, and courage vs cowardice. Gawain’s struggles aren’t so much whether he’s one or the other, but how much of each he is comfortable being. His arc from impulsiveness to self actuation is not a straight line but a twisted one, with many obstacles along the way, but the entire thing pays off with the absolutely stunning last 20 minutes. These are 20 of the best minutes of cinema I have seen this year, and they play out accompanied by Daniel Hart’s score and exactly no dialogue. This last sequence is a masterclass in visual storytelling, and while it could exist without the preceding 110 minutes, missing that context would rob it of much of its impact.
Dev Patel is incredible throughout. Much of the film is without dialogue, but as long as you can see his face and eyes, you will never be in doubt of Gawain’s state –even when he’s not sure of it himself. Alica Vikander is also excellent in her dual role, playing women at opposite ends of the story and the economic spectrum, another duality. Each character lends the other more impact. Sean Harris, lately being known for playing villains, gives a wonderfully warm performance as Arthur, an ageing King who regrets not taking the time to know his nephew. Joel Edgerton appears in the third act as a jovial manner lord and fits right into that part as easily as you probably think he would. Think of his turn as Falstaff in 2019’s The King. Lastly, the Green Knight himself is played by Ralph Ineson, whose imposing height and trademark gravelly voice make him a pitch-perfect choice.
David Lowery has created something special here. He already has a stellar track record, his (criminally underrated) adaptation of Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story were among the best films that came out in their respective years. The Green Knight cements him as a master of visual storytelling and or grappling with big themes in an entirely human way.
The Green Knight is a remarkable achievement for all involved. It’s beautiful, frustrating, emotional, melancholy, psychedelic, and affirming all at the same time, and it’s one of the best films of the year so far.
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