The Green Knight (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An unorthodox medieval fantasy tale

David Lowery’s new film “The Green Knight” is an unorthodox medieval fantasy tale you have to experience for yourself. Based on the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the movie alternatively baffles and amazes you as calmly and thoughtfully delivering one uncanny magical moment to another along its seemingly simple narrative, and the overall result is quite stunning to say the least. To be frank with you, even at this point, I am actually scratching my head on what exactly its key moments are about, but, as reflecting more and more on these sublime moments, I find myself quite willing to experience the whole movie again for more understanding and appreciation.

After the prologue scene which boldly promises something different from usual medieval fantasy tales, the movie promptly introduces us to Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), and we see how this carefree lad happens to get himself involved into a very serious circumstance. Shortly after he comes to the Christmas banquet held inside the court of the king who is also Gawain’s uncle, the banquet is suddenly disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious magical figure called, yes, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), and the Green Knight has a challenge to be accepted by any of the king’s knights. If he is struck down by the knight who accepts the challenge during the following duel, that knight will get his green ax in addition to gaining considerable wealth and fame, but, of course, there is a catch (Isn’t it ever?). On the very next Christmas, the Green Knight will wait for that knight at a spot called Green Chapel, and he will give back the exact same blow to that knight.

When all of the king’s noble knights do not come forward, Gawain bravely comes forward instead, but, what do you know, the challenge turns out to be much easier than expected. The Green Knight virtually lets himself decapitated by Gawain, so everyone is relieved for a while, but, not so surprisingly, the Green Knight is promptly revived and then disappears away from the scene, while also reminding Gawain of the inevitable consequence of choosing to accepting his challenge.

As amusingly pointed out to us after that, one year quickly passes, and Gawain is certainly quite depressed about his approaching doom. The next Christmas is approaching day by day, and there is nothing he can do except accepting what is demanded by the Green Knight, so he eventually comes to begin his journey after getting himself prepared by not only his uncle but also his mother. Although his mother incidentally does not get along that well with her brother like her paganism and his Christianity, both she and her brother respectively do as much as they can for Gawain, and we accordingly get an oddly interesting moment of the juxtaposition between two contrasting religions.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our hero will come across a series of difficulties and plights during his journey, but the Lowery’s screenplay often catches us off guard while leisurely taking its time. As Gawain struggles more and more along his difficult journey, the mood around him becomes increasingly dreamy and hallucinogenic, and we are served with several haunting scenes including the one involved with a young woman and her barren residence. While I am not so sure about what this scene actually means, it is still quite mesmerizing thanks to its ethereal spookiness, and it also become a bit poignant when Gawain does a little brave act of mercy for her.

The movie continued to baffle me more during my viewing, but it still held my attention nevertheless thanks to Lowery’s effortless handling of atmosphere and narrative, and the technical aspects of the movie are simply superlative. While the production design by Jade Healy and the costume design by Malgosia Turzanska are commendable for bringing considerable gritty realism as well as sublime touches of imagination to the movie, cinematographer Andrew Roz Palermo delivers numerous awesome visual moments to behold for mood and details, and these visually impressive moments are further enhanced by the effective medieval score by Daniel Hart, who previously collaborated with Lowery in “Pete’s Dragon” (2016), “A Ghost Story” (2017), and “The Old Man & the Gun” (2019).

As the human center of the movie, Dev Patel, who has steadily advanced since his breakthrough turn in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), is compelling in his character’s gradual development along the story. While never staying away from his character’s human weaknesses, Patel brings substantial emotional intensity to a number of crucial scenes which depend a lot on his talent and presence, and we come to care more about his character’s supposedly inevitable end – and whether he really has any chance to survive his second encounter with the Green Knight.

Around Patel, Lowery places a number of various notable performers, each of whom has each own moment to shine. While Alicia Vikander has the most fun via her two different roles, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Joel Edgerton, Ralph Ineson, Erin Kellyman, Barry Keoghan, and Sarita Choudhury are also well-cast in their respective roles, and Keoghan, who drew my attention for the first time via his small but memorable supporting role in “’71” (2014), reminds me again that he is one of the most interesting new actors to watch at present.

On the whole, “The Green Knight” is definitely not something you can watch on Sunday afternoon just for casual fun, but it will be a very rewarding experience for you if you are ready for something different from recent fantasy blockbuster films while also understanding well what it boldly attempts to do. In short, this is one of the best films of this year besides being another admirable work from Lowery, and I urge you to check it out as soon as possible.

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