Writer/director David Lowery creates an entrancing knight’s tale that seeks to re-define honour and take viewers on an atmospheric journey through his Arthurian world.
Although Lowery doesn’t have many features under his belt, his name already carries a strong reputation for artistic storytelling. The Old Man and the Gun, his previous feature, was easily one of the most underrated films of 2018 and a personal favourite which closed Robert Redford’s prolific career on a fitting note. With Lowery’s adaptation of the classic Arthurian tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, his storytelling tackles an entirely new frontier in a medieval fantasy setting.
Sure, the artistic font used to mark chapters in Gawain’s (Dev Patel) journey to face the mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) is ripped straight from the literature it is based off – however, it’s the locations, atmosphere, and cinematography from Andrew Droz Palermo that truly make The Green Knight’s visual storytelling top-tier. This Camelot has a much darker and drearier look to it which reflects the brothel lifestyle Gawain feels he belongs in, rather than sitting beside the King (Sean Harris) at the Round Table.
Things take a dire turn when the Green Knight interrupts the table’s festivities. As Gawain leaves the grounded comfort of Camelot the film drives deeper into fantasy for some spectacular visuals. Gawain stumbling on a field of giants and interacting with other fantastical entities builds the titular being into a something more than man and makes you feel as if Gawain is stepping into a new world. Lowery’s vision really shines through every instance along Gawain’s journey and The Green Knight is A24 showing they can deliver an artsy big budget epic.
At the centre of this incredible visual showcase is an excellent performance from Patel that’s easily among his best. Gawain is not your typical knight in shining armour and if his uncle wasn’t King, you wouldn’t find him anywhere near the Round Table. He smells like booze and depravity and receives silent ire from his fellow knights for his commoner lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). He barely even believes he’s worthy of being a knight himself and Patel makes this unsureness easily relatable. In the early stages of meeting Gawain, you can tell that he really has no concept of being a knight and his immaturity comes out in full force with the first blow he lands on the Green Knight.
It’s this cockiness that is tested throughout Gawain’s journey and comes together to question what it really means to have honour. For the most part, each interaction and instance along Gawain’s journey is a reminder of what he stands to gain. In the moment, it can be tough to see how Gawain interacting with a mysterious Lord (Joel Edgerton) or dealing with a spirit looking for its head means for him in his journey. However, once he finally reaches the Green Knight and his part in the ordeal becomes clear, all the pieces come together. Gawain’s journey creates a horrifying vision of cowardice that’s shocking to see, but also works towards making him into the honourable knight he wants to be. It’s a clear, “take what you dish out” message which leaves a big impact and really embodies what it means to have honour in a time where honour means everything.
Lowery turns this simplistic knight’s tale into a fascinating artistic vision, but that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t without its flaws. Certain plot points are left hanging and you’re not sure what to exactly think of them by the end. Visually they’re incredible, but they’re threads that never tie back into Gawain’s experience. The ending also left me wanting something a little more, particularly considering how suddenly it comes to a close. As great as the charmingly playful last line from the Green Knight is, it just comes too swiftly, and I feel that a more fulfilling ending of Gawain is missed.
Even when he isn’t at his best, Lowery masterfully showcases his visionary artistry to create a unique thematic experience that uncovers what it really means to be honourable.