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Review: The Green Knight

July 30, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

David Lowery’s The Green Knight, the always interesting filmmaker’s bold reimagining of an Arthurian legend, is a film for audiences to luxuriate in. It’s a fantasy epic, sure, but unlike any other film bearing that description.

This is not a swords-and-sorcery movie in the classic sense. There is actually very little action in Lowery’s film, which instead unfolds with slow-burning suspense, intoxicating visuals, and an odd eroticism at times. It often plays out like a visual tone poem that allows us to reflect upon its themes of chivalry, mortality, power dynamics and accepting death as destiny.

This is all to say that The Green Knight is more of a meditation than an action movie, which is befitting of a film bearing the A24 logo. To draw a comparison, Lowery’s film is to fantasy epics what an elevated horror movie like the beloved indie distributor’s New England folktale The Witch was to its own genre. While The Green Knight is admittedly a lot to take in, and I actually feel like I need another viewing to fully unpack what I saw, Lowery has crafted a visually magnificent minimalist fantasy epic that demands attention.

The film serves as a reimagining of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and centres around Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Katie Dickie). Gawain is seen as a bit of a rebel around town, creating a stir by spending nights with a prostitute, Essel (Alicia Vikander), instead of going to church. But it’s Christmas time, and Gawain is invited to celebrate with the King and Queen, and is honoured to be seated beside them.

It’s here that young Gawain accepts a challenge put forth by the tree-like Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who rides in during the banquet and dares one of Arthur’s knights to strike him. He who beheads the knight will receive his imposing axe in exchange, but must also return a year later to the Green Chapel and give up his own head. Gawain lands the decapitating blow, the Green Knight picks up his head and rides off, thus sealing his fate.

The majority of the 130 minute running time follows Gawain on this at times exciting and other times mournful journey to the Green Chapel, a quest that is as much physical as it is emotional. In a series of intriguing and often haunting interludes, he encounters and is tested by tricksters, giants, ghosts and even a talking fox. Patel is a powerful guiding force throughout it all, delivering one of his very finest performances in a commanding leading role that is befitting of his talents, revealing so much of his character’s internal journey through his face and body language.

The supporting cast includes memorable turns by Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman and Joel Edgerton as figures who come to define Gawain’s journey. The film unfolds with a dreamlike tone, matched by some subtly powerful visual effects and incredible production design. The excellent, moody cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo transports us into this world right from the opening scenes, which show lightly falling snow that we can almost feel landing on our faces. The film’s stunning visuals are matched by Daniel Hart’s mesmerizing score that mixes in traditional elements.

The film moves at a slow, simmering pace that does require a good deal of investment from the audience, but this patience pays off with an incredible last act that crescendos with a sequence that will surely go down as one of the finest cinematic interludes of the year. Lowery doesn’t spell everything out for the audience, embedding The Green Knight with symbolism and spirituality as he embraces a sort of heightened surrealism. The result is a transporting, beautifully crafted journey that challenges and mesmerizes us in equal measure, and should only grow richer on subsequent viewings.

The Green Knight is now playing in theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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