‘The Green Knight’ Review: Monty Python and the Seventh Seal
Let’s get one thing straight: He isn’t a knight. People sometimes call him Sir Gawain, and then he has to mumble out a correction, which is …
Let’s get one thing straight: He isn’t a knight. People sometimes call him Sir Gawain, and then he has to mumble out a correction, which is embarrassing. He’s a failson, a nephew, a hanger-on at the Round Table, coasting on his charm, his good looks and his family connections. King Arthur (Sean Harris) is his uncle, and his mother (Sarita Choudhury) is a powerful sorceress. He shows up at the royal court now and then, but mostly divides his time between the tavern and the bawdy house.
As played by Dev Patel in “The Green Knight” — David Lowery’s sumptuous, ragged and inventive adaptation of the anonymous 14th-century chivalric romance — this Gawain combines a recognizable modern type with a venerable literary archetype. Patel, who has starred in “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Lion,” is something of a specialist in quest narratives. He can be shrewd or guileless, bumbling or brave, and he’s adept at signaling both the comedy and the pain of a young man’s search for meaning, identity and adventure in a hostile world.
Patel is a magnet for the audience’s sympathy, and Gawain is a personality we can recognize — an Everyman, to mix up the English-major references — amid the ambient strangeness and magic. Lowery, a master of spooky atmosphere and metaphysical mummery (see also “Ghost Story,” “Pete’s Dragon” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), starts the movie with horror-movie sound effects, spells and flames and tremors of spooky portent. As seriously as he takes the spiritual and moral significance of the story that follows, he is also clearly having fun with it and with us.
From Wagner to “Game of Thrones” and back again, pop-cultural medievalism has a habit of leavening sublimity and solemnity with heavy doses of intended or inadvertent silliness. The most sincere compliment I can pay “The Green Knight” is that it often feels like a tribute to “The Seventh Seal” by way of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Or maybe vice versa, with some Led Zeppelin deep cuts thrown in. (The metal-acquainted score is by Daniel Hart.) It’s a movie about death, honor and the desire to take control of fate that is also a knowing exploration of the preposterousness of such notions. It has haunting, heartbreaking, erotically unsettling moments, as well as monsters, fools and a magical fox so cute it could be a Disney sidekick.
Like “Die Hard,” this is a Christmas movie, which is to say a religious allegory in sometimes hokey holiday dress. At a Yuletide gathering, the melancholy king asks his nephew for a story of real-life adventure, and Gawain, who has spent the morning in the arms of Essel (Alicia Vikander), has nothing to share. The party is interrupted by a somber green giant (voiced by Ralph Ineson), who offers a challenge that only Gawain is foolish enough to accept. He can smite the Green Knight on the condition that, the next Christmas, he allows the knight to smite him back.
This playground challenge results in a beheading and sends Gawain on a hallucinatory journey toward, around and through the inevitability of death. He encounters treacherous thieves (led by Barry Keoghan), a reanimated Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman), a lord (Joel Edgerton) and his lady and other figures conjured from the mists of time by Lowery, his cinematographer (Andrew Droz Palermo) and the special-effects artists.
Sometimes the going is murky, both visually and thematically. England in wintertime has rarely been gloomier, and when the wan daylight fades you have to squint and crane your neck to see what’s going on. Similarly, you may stroke your chin, emoji-style, as you ponder the shaggy-dog plot and its layers of significance. Part of the persistent charm of old texts like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” lies in their stubborn unknowability. They come to us from a sensibility — and a language, in this case the Middle English of the English Midlands — that lies tantalizingly beyond our reach, even though many of the words, ideas and tropes are uncanny in their familiarity.
Lowery respects this weirdness, adding eccentric flourishes of his own. This is hardly a faithful cinematic rendering of the Gawain poem, if such a thing were even possible. Lowery layers in ambiguities peculiar to his chosen medium, casting some performers in more than one role and allowing the linear movement of the story to stop, reverse and come unraveled. The question of whether Gawain is dreaming or awake — alive or dead, one self or another — is at times urgent, at times moot. Similarly indeterminate is the puzzle of his free will. Is he acting out a preordained script, or writing the story of his life? Is he learning anything of value, or just stumbling along in search of the next adventure? Is this a concept album or a jam session?
These questions are charged with perhaps surprisingly intense emotion. “The Green Knight” is always interesting — and occasionally baffling — but at the end it rises to a swirling, feverish pitch of feeling and philosophical earnestness. One feature of quest romance as a genre is that the experience of reading (or in this case, watching) mirrors the journey of the hero. As he comes to understand the reality of his condition, so do we. The self-knowledge he acquires through his ordeals is also available to us.
Gawain encounters and enacts cruelty and mercy. He survives his own death, in a way that seems more mundane than miraculous — as if it were something that had happened to everyone. The lessons he learns about honor, grace and courage are startling in their simplicity and relevance. He returns to where he started and knows the place for the first time. This movie is worth watching twice.
The Green Knight
Rated R. Medieval, man. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes. In theaters.