The mythical, adventure-packed drama The Green Knight is the best Arthurian adaptation this side of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. David Lowery’s supernatural fantasy isn’t a comedy, however, though it does have some comedic beats. Like the Monty Python crew, the chameleon filmmaker known for contemplative films concerning mortality (The Old Man and the Gun and A Ghost Story) has an assured handle on the source material. Adapted from the 14th-century British legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poetic tale is an early demarcation of the chivalric code: an unbreakable ethos guiding all knights. And for audiences today, inhabiting a world where the lines between right and wrong in the pursuit of success and fame are graying every single day, the parable reminds us that sometimes mere goodness is enough in place of achieving greatness.
It’s a simple story: An otherworldly beast known as the Green Knight, called up by a circle of witches, arrives at King Arthur’s court on Christmas with a challenge. Whosoever lands a blow against him must venture to the Green Chapel one year hence to receive an equal blow in kind. The provocation is meant to test a knight’s courage. The promise is to test his honor. King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) are a frail kind of desolation row, barely grasping the Camelot of yore. The Knights of the Round Table do not step up. Instead, Gawain (Dev Patel) leaps toward the dare, and strikes the blow, but he quickly regrets it.
The Gawain depicted in Lowery’s take on the Green Knight story greatly differs from the literary version. In the original legend, Gawain is the greatest and purest knight. In the movie, he isn’t a knight at all; he’s the king’s favored nephew, a plucky upstart wanting to prove himself. But Gawain lacks the confidence or conviction to fully embrace the tenets of knighthood. To put it nicely, he’s a womanizing lush with commitment issues to his on-again/off-again lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). In The Green Knight, his perilous trek toward the Green Chapel, marked by apparitions, temptations, doubts and villains, is the quintessential hero’s journey, translated in abundant detail by Lowery for a new audience.
Lowery’s first hurdle in this quest is Patel. A charming, well-tailored talent with a penchant for picking roles in lackluster movies like Hotel Mumbai, Lion, and The Wedding Guest, Patel has rarely moved the needle as a central character, and the hype surrounding him has rarely matched the results. But with Lowery, Patel has finally discovered a director capable of pulling together his natural leading-man bona fides. As Gawain, Patel’s physical presence isn’t brooding, or even wide and grand, like the traditional image of a gallant knight. A shiver of astonishment and a shock of aloofness run through his body at every confrontation, leading to equal instances of high drama and wicked comedy. His mere presence, as a man of Indian descent, redefines what heroes in the Western cinematic tradition have looked like — typically white men.
The actor’s layered performance further exemplifies Lowery’s assured handle on the source material. These Arthurian myths are all bizarre, particularly how the earlier British varieties melded local history with folklore, which differs from the later popularized French romances that dealt with a melodramatic courtly love. On Gawain’s quest, the five knightly virtues — friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety — are personified in a string of odd encounters: an eccentric scavenger (Barry Keoghan) wandering a charred and war-torn wasteland of mutilated bodies, an oversexed lady (played by Vikander as well) and lord (Joel Edgerton) occupying a cavernous castle, and a haunted woman (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Erin Kellyman) searching for her head.
In these supernatural plotlines, soundtracked to Daniel Hart’s alien score, Lowery mixes up a vat of not just the Arthurian legend of Gawain, but other Welsh superstitions and myths as well. He also recognizes the queer, homoerotic subtext of the original legend, and allows it to take root in the primary text. To the delight of Welsh literature buffs everywhere, he articulates, through talking animals, hallucinogenic spells, church bells seeping into the soundscape, and the transitory celebration of Christmas, how two worlds — the Christian and the pagan — are caught in opposition. That battle is further evinced in the exhaustively detailed production design, which highlights a changing era: Even on the buildings, the windows vary between circular, triangular, and pentagram-shaped designs.
The only hiccup in this foreboding tale is the pacing. Lowery sticks closely to the copious section titles of the source material. For those familiar with the text, the title cards are sign markers to their favorite scenes. For novice viewers, they suggest an overwhelming slog, by interrupting and pausing the rhythm of the enchanting events.
But Lowery does lower the intimidation factor of the heady material by providing plenty of olive branches to modern audiences. There’s a dream sequence late in the film that crystallizes the honor-bound component of the chivalric code in an unusually approachable manner, and sans damsels in distress. Lowery shows reverence for recognizable pop-culture artifacts like Excalibur, while looping in Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) as Gawain’s mother.
He likewise paints this environment in practical terms. Filmed in Ireland, The Green Knight has a grim, earthy aesthetic, as though if the camera were not rolling, the moss and grass would quickly consume the dark green landscape and all who dwell upon it. The fantastical drama is a textured delight: Every character walks with the heaviness of the muck under a fingernail. The costumes, by designer Malgosia Turzanska (Hell or High Water) are detailed down to their charmed pins. The sound of the cold wind smears over the audience’s bones. And the composition of the Green Knight himself — a wood-creaking hulk of bark and leaves — fully embraces the pro-environmentalist current coursing through the legend.
You could pause The Green Knight at any moment and discover an image worth praising. The film is a showcase for director of photography Andrew Droz Palermo (A Ghost Story), allowing him to storytell through lighting in ways both deeply effective and breathtakingly immersive. Sometimes it’s both in a single scene, such as the Green Knight’s first appearance at Arthur’s court, where the camera cuts between Arthur bathed in celestial light, Gawain in low light, and Guinevere, soaked in darkness. At other junctions in the movie, shadows overtake the frame, allowing for sharp chiaroscuro shots, while jaw-dropping environments filled with rust-colored fog are frightening as much as they are astounding.
Lowery more than catches an attentive audience’s attention with this film. His dazzling visuals, brilliant spectacle, and petrifying sequences are enrapturing. Likewise, Patel finally lays claim to the leading-man mantle so often bequeathed to him, yet so rarely earned. His career-defining performance should establish him as an actor made for big, grand epics. Lowery’s The Green Knight is cinema’s best Arthurian adaptation, which may matter only to literary scholars. Everyone else will have to settle for it being one of the best movies of 2021.
The Green Knight debuts in theaters on Friday, July 30.