The Green Knight review – Dev Patel rides high on sublimely beautiful quest

Director David Lowery conjures up visual wonders and metaphysical mysteries from the anonymously authored 14th-century chivalric poem

Christ’s sacrifice and the erotic death-wish of earthly glory: these are the components of this freaky folk horror from writer-director David Lowery, a mysterious and sensationally beautiful film inspired by the 14th-century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written by an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer. Its creator’s identity remains a puzzle to the present day – though the film playfully hints at the question of authorship.

The story could not be more simple or more perplexing: a nobleman at the court of King Arthur is challenged by a stranger to a martial contest on Christmas Day. But the contest utterly negates or deconstructs the whole idea of manly valour, strength, courage and skill in battle. All that is required is submission.

In this film adaptation, Dev Patel plays Gawain, whom Lowery imagines almost as a kind of Prince Hal figure, a dissolute wastrel woken in some place of ill-repute with a mug of beer in the face from his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) with a cheeky cry of “Christ is born!”. It is Christmas Day, and Gawain is required to attend the court presided over by Arthur and Guinevere: charismatic and cadaverous performances from Sean Harris and Kate Dickie. It is the king’s caprice to require of one of his attendants some tale to amuse the company – and as if in answer to this request, a gigantic stranger strides through the door, a knight all in green, begging the king to be allowed to take on one of his attendants in a certain “Christmas game”.

The Green Knight simply presents his unprotected neck to Gawain and tells him to take a free shot with his sword. But in 12 months’ time, Gawain must present himself at the Green Chapel and allow the Knight to take his own swing at Gawain’s defenceless flesh. Stunned by the strangeness of the demand, and by the honour of carrying it out in front of the king, Gawain chops the Green Knight’s head off – and the knight simply picks his head up and strides away. Now Gawain must confront his own destiny. Will he also be saved from death by some divine grace? Will the relinquishing of self bring about some enigmatic renewal? Or has he somehow failed in such a way as to be punished with this black mass of humiliation?

And so Gawain is to go on an extraordinary quest across a stunningly rendered landscape towards the Green Chapel, shot by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, to the accompaniment of haunting compositions and arrangements by Daniel Hart. Like a haunted pilgrim in something by Bergman, Gawain is to come across strangers whose own intentions are sinister. Barry Keoghan is a malign scavenger who tells Gawain he is in the Green Chapel right now (like Mephistopheles telling Marlowe’s Faustus he is already in hell); Erin Kellyman is the spirit of Saint Winifred, whose own decapitation made her a Christian martyr; finally Gawain is to lodge with a certain lord and lady, played by Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander (an eerie doppelganger of the lowborn woman he has left behind), who startle him with what appears to be a taste for medieval swinging.

There is a sensational speech from the lady of the castle about the meaning of green: the colour of nature, the colour of remorseless amoral growth, the grass that will grow out of the grave and the moss that will cover the tomb, the endless process that will make a mockery of individual heroes and their paths of glory. And there is a stunning sequence in which Gawain is robbed and bound by the scavenger and his accomplices, left to die, to rot down to his bones but then to be born again, a rebirth that happens within the blink of an eye, or within the victim’s mind, or in metaphysical parallel with his ignominious roadside death.

Gawain is being tested. So are we. The visual brilliance of this film combines with shroomy toxicity and inexplicable moral grandeur: what a stunning experience.

• The Green Knight is released on 24 September in cinemas and on Amazon Prime Video.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Green Knight review – Dev Patel takes a magical and masterly quest
David Lowery’s complex, visually sumptuous and uncommercial tale of Arthurian legend revels in upending expectations

Charles Bramesco

26, Jul, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
The 50 best films of 2021 in the UK, No 2: The Green Knight
Dev Patel goes on an extraordinary quest in sensationally beautiful film adaptation inspired by a 14th-century poem

Peter Bradshaw

16, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Last Duel review – storytelling with gusto in Ridley Scott’s medieval epic
Jodie Comer comes up against odious men played by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver in a reverse rape-revenge parable set in 14th-century France

Peter Bradshaw

14, Oct, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Queen of Spades review – thrillingly addictive tale of gambling and sin
Thorold Dickinson’s 1949 Pushkin adaptation is a glorious melodrama about an ambitious Russian military officer and a countess who sold her soul to the devil in exchange for the secrets of a card game

Peter Bradshaw

21, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Blonde review – Ana de Armas gives her all as Monroe in otherwise incurious film
Glossy horror perpetuates the tradition of portraying the brilliant actor as an infantile, sacrificial sex-lamb on the altar of celebrity

Peter Bradshaw

21, Sep, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Pale Blue Eye review – baffled, beardy Christian Bale in gruesome murder yarn
Set in 1830, a mildly ridiculous plot sends a haunted Bale to investigate the gothic killing of a military cadet

Peter Bradshaw

22, Dec, 2022 @5:00 PM

Article image
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret review – Judy Blume’s classic pre-teen tale retold
Set in 1970, the year Blume’s novel was published, the sweet-natured story is engaging but does feel a little out of date

Peter Bradshaw

17, May, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
My Policeman review – poignant tale of a love triangle inspired by EM Forster’s own
Michael Grandage’s adaptation of a novel inspired by Forster’s famous ménage à trois conjours a mood of British postwar repression and guilt

Peter Bradshaw

20, Oct, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Tender Bar review – George Clooney’s pain-free coming-of-age tale is a gritless oyster
This adaptation of JR Moehringer’s memoirs, directed by Clooney, is strikingly empty of plausible emotion

Peter Bradshaw

15, Dec, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Road Dance review – boiling fury in tale of rape and denial in the Hebrides
There’s a wild rage against the backdrop of amazing landscape in an adaptation of John MacKay’s novel about a sex assault in a crofting community

Cath Clarke

16, May, 2022 @10:00 AM