Film-makers over the years have bashed and battered Arthurian legend like a suit of armour. For every Lancelot du Lac or Excalibur, there is a travesty such as Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a sort of “Lancelot du Lad”, redolent less of King Arthur at Camelot than Arthur Daley down the Winchester.
The Green Knight is of a far higher order. Its writer-director, David Lowery, has adapted the anonymously authored 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated most recently, in 2007, by the poet Simon Armitage) into a form both intelligible and peculiar. The opening scene suggests a rude awakening: the young knight-in-waiting Gawain (Dev Patel, the gangly hero of The Personal History of David Copperfield) is roused from his dreams by having a bucket of cold water flung in his face, Teasmades not being widely available in the Middle Ages.
In fact, the film is more of a waking dream than a wake-up call. Freakish sights pass before us, including a tribe of plodding, doughy giants that resemble miserable Morphs, yet none causes the pace to vary. Magic is simply part of the fabric (literally so when Gawain receives an enchanted sash protecting him from mortal injury).
No one seems taken aback when the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) rides unbidden into Camelot during the festive period, ruining Christmas in the process. His face has the texture of bark, his neck crunching horribly when he moves. He presents a challenge to King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his men, who are seated not at a round table but one shaped like a giant stone C. It’s a pleasing piece of design, even if it does make them look like the knights of the juice bar.
Any one of them, growls the Green Knight, may strike him with a blade. But whoever lands the blow must find him again in a year and a day, and allow themselves to be struck in return. This he calls his Christmas Game. Hasn’t he heard of Jenga?
Gawain, green in another sense of the word, accepts the challenge, divorcing his opponent’s head from his body in one go. It’s not the grisly decapitation that lingers so much as the details that follow, such as the moss that springs up between the cracks in the floor where the Knight lays his axe, or the Magritte-style mismatch between murky landscape and blue sky as he gallops away, his head now back on its neck.
Ticking sounds are heard from the film’s first few seconds – water dripping, strings being tersely plucked – but only after the Green Knight’s departure does the countdown begin in earnest on the soundtrack, the metronomic rhythm building until it seems to mimic the blows of an axe. As his day of reckoning grows nearer, Gawain becomes quite the celebrity. He poses for his portrait, and finds himself recognised in taverns. Privately, though, his concerns are mounting. “I fear I’m not meant for greatness,” he tells his lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander). “Why greatness?” she asks. “Why’s goodness not enough?”
Few modern actors are better built for fretting than Patel, with his high, fluty voice, glittering eyes and pointed, El Greco-like gauntness. He’s so unselfconsciously handsome that any burdens play all the more sharply on his features. Put him in the frame with less legible or trustworthy actors, such as Joel Edgerton, as a lord who gives Gawain shelter, or Barry Keoghan, as a malevolent urchin who emerges from infernal smoke, and Patel seems instantly imperilled.
Lowery attends as carefully to the sensual, tactile details in the story’s margins as he does to the grand quest at its core. We hear the metallic clink as a bandit scrapes the tip of his knife along his victim’s chain mail vest; we see Gawain preparing himself to be a knight on the town, his grooming conducted by candle-light alone. Fittingly for a story that is often opaque, the action plays out in muddy light or at arm’s length: this is a movie to be squinted at as much as watched.
Meaning clicks into place ecstatically during a montage near the end of the film in which Gawain imagines the sort of life he might lead should he fail to fulfil his side of the bargain. The lesson he learns – that there is no shortcut to honour, no life-hacks to achieve integrity – feels as relevant as ever.
“The Green Knight” is now in cinemas and on Amazon Prime
This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age