I’ve previously aired my issues with British color-blind casting, but it’s doing one good thing: It’s turning Dev Patel into an unstoppable force. The tall, handsome Londoner starred in The Personal History of David Copperfield last year, and this week he headlines another film adaptation of a classic work of English literature in The Green Knight. I’d be pushing him to be the first nonwhite James Bond, but apparently he isn’t interested. (Too bad — his performance as a contract killer in The Wedding Guest suggests he’d be a good Bond.) His hard-bitten bravado with insecurity lurking within provides a center to this ineffably strange and mystical movie.
If you’re not up on the 14th-century epic poem that this is based on, the story begins with Gawain (Patel) waking up in a brothel on Christmas morning, going home, changing his clothes, and presenting himself at court — the preceding is not in the epic poem — where his uncle (Sean Harris) is the king. The towering Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) crashes the festivities and issues a written challenge to the court: Any knight who can land a blow on him will receive his wealth and his giant green axe, provided that that knight then keep an appointment the next Christmas to receive a blow in return. Gawain, whose name is pronounced “Garwin” throughout, accepts the challenge and makes it a real Christmas party by lopping off the challenger’s head. The Green Knight then picks up his severed pate and rides off, cackling, “One year hence!”
This is the work of Fort Worth’s own David Lowery, and it seems to me like his most complete film, or maybe his brand of mythic fantasy fits this story better than any of his previous ones. As you’d expect from him, the movie looks incredible, with Jade Healy’s borderline-abstract production design for the castle interiors and the Green Knight’s leaf-shaped head. These contrast with the exteriors, as Gawain treks through the blasted heaths and moors to keep his promise. (The movie was actually shot in Ireland.) Lowery has a flair for the unexpected visual — when the Green Knight lays his axe down on the castle’s stone floor, grass immediately sprouts up between the cracks, which is pretty cool. Dramatic flashes of red or green light illuminate the scenes.
You can readily see the director’s debt to The Witch, as he has cast two actors from that film (Ineson and, as the queen, Kate Dickie); uses Daniel Hart’s dissonant score with choirs wailing in Old English over the shots of the forest; and has Gawain haunted by a fox rather than a rabbit on his travels. The knight’s encounter with St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman) has a ghostly feel that’s typical of the movie’s alien vibe, something that we don’t experience in other films about King Arthur and his knights.
Of course, there are times when you wish Lowery would stop admiring Andrew Droz Palermo’s crystalline cinematography and crack on with the story. The camera pirouette showing a tied-up and solitary Gawain turning into a skeleton and back into flesh and blood is a useless flourish. The speech given by a rich aristocrat (Alicia Vikander) about the significance of the color green could have been cut down, too. Lowery changes the ending of the poem, giving us a false ending in which Gawain makes the wrong choice and watches the consequences thereof ripple for decades, and it just goes on way too long.
That fake ending does serve a purpose, however, in tying the movie to the director’s ongoing concerns with human mortality and our quest to discover the meaning of our existence. It’s fitting that the morals undergirding this are so old-fashioned — a deal’s a deal. Gawain marches off to his doom, away from citizens who adore him, a king who favors him, and a woman (also played by Vikander) who loves him. Offered the temptations of the world on his journey, Gawain has a final vision of a prosperous life lived without honor that gives him the strength to meet the Green Knight’s blow. The weirdness of Lowery’s vision might be frighteningly unfamiliar, but it’s probably the way to adapt a text that’s more than 600 years old, imparting a primal force to this legendary tale.
The Green Knight
Starring Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander. Written and directed by David Lowery, based on the anonymous epic poem. Rated R.