What a strange and peculiarly powerful film this is. An ambitious adaptation of the chivalric poem about the adventures of an Arthurian knight, written in Middle English by an unknown author (and most famously translated in the 21st century by Simon Armitage), The Green Knight is the best work yet from David Lowery, director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Capitalising on leading man Dev Patel’s uncanny ability to embody a combination of weakness and strength, wretchedness and valour, Lowery’s haunting epic takes the viewer on a mythical quest, replete with flaming heads and eerie giants, that condenses the emotional weight of Peter Jackson’s entire Lord of the Rings trilogy into just over two hours of dense screen magic.
It’s Christmas Day at the Round Table, as the king (a sympathetic Sean Harris) invites his wastrel nephew Gawain (Patel) to sit by his side. The still-to-be knighted Gawain insists he has no tale to tell, to which the Queen (played with chilly magnetism by Kate Dickie) simply adds: “Yet.” When the giant titular knight appears, looking like a verdant cousin of Peter Jackson’s Treebeard, and makes his blow-for-blow challenge (“it is only a game”), Gawain takes his mighty axe and chops off his head, sealing his fate. A year later, he must journey to the Green Knight’s woodland chapel and receive a similar wound in return. En route, his mettle will be tested by thieves and temptresses alike.
Despite cleaving more closely to the original text than previous screen incarnations (we’re a million miles away from the cod antics of 1984’s Sword of the Valiant), Lowery’s sumptuously elusive film nevertheless makes several innovative leaps, emphasising duality and ambiguity. Gone is any clear revelation of the Green Knight’s identity, replaced with subtle visions suggesting that his “true” personality is legion. The enchantress puppet master of the original is now also Gawain’s mother, mesmerisingly played by Sarita Choudhury, setting otherworldly Oedipal wheels in motion.
During the chaptered settings of Gawain’s journey, A Meeting with St Winifred finds our antihero arriving at a Hansel and Gretel-like cottage where he is pointedly charged with retrieving the saint’s severed head, thereby intertwining two legends. There is also a complex double role for Alicia Vikander, first seen as Gawain’s lowly lover, Essel, then reappearing as the lady of the castle who tempts him into sticky deceit. Vikander also gets to deliver the film’s mission statement, an elegantly modern speech balanced between horror and wonder, about nature reclaiming the Earth, transforming the travails of man into mere moss.
Audacious visions of possible futures dramatically haunt the present. After an encounter with a battlefield scavenger (Barry Keoghan, sporting a feral glint), a beautifully choreographed, slowly circling shot conjures a compact, Zardoz-style image of death foretold and then reversed. Later, Gawain’s flight from his destiny combines the existential melancholia of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ with the imagined final battle of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2. It sounds absurd, and on some levels it’s just that. Yet Lowery’s cinematic instincts are astute, leading the audience toward a finale that is both satisfying and tantalising, doubtless provoking heated post-film debate.
Having re-edited The Green Knight during lockdown “to cut it with love in my heart instead of disappointment and hate”, Lowery cheekily cites Ron Howard’s Willow as an inspiration, alongside Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac and Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I saw echoes of the colour-coded fantasia of Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come, the talking-fox madness of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (in which “nature is Satan’s church”) and the sheer WTF daringness of Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture.
A rich dramatic score by Daniel Hart and dreamy cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo add to the intoxicating spell. If the result sends viewers scuttling back to Armitage’s uniquely accessible version of the source text, then that would be marvellous indeed. But there is enough here that is dazzling and enthralling for Lowery’s movie to stand proudly as a grand work of poetry in its own right.