Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), and the son of Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), accused by some in the village of witchcraft. After a brief opening scene with his lover (Alicia Vikander) and mother, Gawain is off to a lavish Christmas banquet with the King and Queen, at which he is surprised to be asked to sit by their side. Arthur speaks to him of taking young Gawain for granted, and immediately Patel conveys depth with his striking eyes, relaying both the emotional pride that comes with finally feeling seen. (He does so much throughout the film in terms of physical performance, using his eyes and body to find emotion without dialogue.) Long, deliberately slow exchanges between Gawain and Arthur set the tone: This is not an action film. Arthur asks to hear a tale.
One unfolds in front of their eyes. The doors to the hall burst open and the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters. Half-man, half-tree, he casts an imposing figure, and he wants to play “The Christmas Game.” He offers a deal. He challenges any of Arthur’s knights to strike him. If they can, the knight will get his imposing weapon in exchange. But there’s a cost. A year hence, the knight must come to the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight will return the exact strike given him a year earlier. Gawain steps forward, and despite being reminded that this is a game by Arthur, beheads the Green Knight. The mythical creature picks up his head, which doesn’t seem too concerned about its detachment, and laughs as it rides off. Gawain is about to have a long year.
This is all really prologue to “The Green Knight,” the bulk of which consists of Sir Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel to meet his fate. Along the way, he meets a scavenger played by Barry Keoghan, a mysterious young woman played by Erin Kellyman, and a Lord played by Joel Edgerton. Lowery’s script deftly matches the poetic structure of its source, circling back to themes like the rhyming structure of a poem, and unfolding his story in what almost feel like cinematic stanzas that repeat and comment on each other. Gawain’s journey becomes a spiral, feeling more and more like a dream, as if he never really left that banquet with the Green Knight to begin with, and the film gains momentum through a cumulative sense of disorientation. It becomes not so much a story of a physical journey but a mental and emotional one, a series of challenges before a young man faces his ultimate fate.
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