Over the past half century, few films based on Arthurian legend have really captured the dreamlike, mythic tone of their source material. Excalibur (1981), certainly did, but more recent entries in the genre have either strived for a “man behind the legend” sense of realism, enveloped their stories in Hollywood gloss, or traded the magic reverie of high fantasy for non-stop action and gravity-defying CGI effects.
Now comes Pete’s Dragon (2016), director David Lowery’s somber and mischievous The Green Knight, which is arguably the best Arthurian tale to see the screen in a long, long while. It’s full of dark magic, witchcraft, haunted settings, and enchanted, mist-shrouded landscapes, all wonderfully evoked by Andrew Droz Palermo’s richly hued, glowing cinematography.
Based on the anonymous 14th-century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this telling sees Gawain (Dev Patel) in the days before his knighthood. Gawain has a lot to learn before being granted the title of sir by his king (Sean Harris). He’s given to heavy drinking and womanizing, but he’s still young and naive. The king (who’s presumably Arthur but listed in the credits only as “King”) summons the knight-in-training to his court on Christmas Day and asks him for the gift of a story. “I have none,” Gawain tells him, having yet to embark on any quests or adventures.
Into their midst comes the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a towering, stony giant with a deep and resonant voice, whose footfalls shake the foundations. He challenges the knights at court: any man who can deliver a blow against him with his sword must meet him at his far off chapel in one year’s time to receive a strike in turn. “Then we can depart as friends.”
Gawain accepts the challenge. And when the year is almost up, he embarks on a journey north, accompanied most of the way by a mysterious fox, who’s been tracking him through the forest.
Patel (star of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire) gives a subdued performance as the solemn would-be knight, who’s weighed down by thoughts of the portentous task at hand but guided by his sense of honor. He struck a bargain, and he must make good on his promise, even if it means his death.
On route to the Green Chapel, the distant home of his supernatural foe, Gawain faces a series of tasks and challenges. He treks through fog, rain, and snow, wearied to the point of exhaustion. He’s robbed by bandits, visited by the ghost of a young woman, who beseeches him to retrieve her long lost severed head from a nearby pond so she can find eternal rest, and seduced by the earthly charms of a lord’s wife at an enchanted castle.
Unfurled in chapters, the episodic nature of the film is part of what makes The Green Knight a great cinematic entry in Arthurian legend. Each chapter is its own story, a tale worth telling back at the Round Table, much like the source material it’s based on. But here, each episode is designed to reflect the inner conflict of the story’s protagonist, a thinking man whose mind wars with the dictates of his heart. And each new challenge seems to have a singular purpose: to distract Gawain from completing his quest.
The Green Knight is a tale of adventure, but it’s no lighthearted romp. There’s very little action but a great deal of suspense and nightmarish, apocalyptic imagery. It’s a story of moral lessons. Gawain isn’t meant to be likable, relatable perhaps. He’s not a good man, per se, but he could be a great one, if he’s willing to loose his head. And that’s all part of the lesson. ◀
Fantasy, adventure, rated R, 125 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts Cinema, Violet Crown, 4 chiles