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“The Green Knight” revels in rich introspection rather than action set pieces

David Lowery’s hotly anticipated fantasy adventure, playing at AMC and Marcus theaters now, is a medieval allegory that flips the hero’s journey on its head.

Photo: Adorned in golden robes, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) sits on a throne and faces the camera in a state of meditative concentration. He holds a bronze scepter and spherical object of 14th century nobility.

Loosely based on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, The Green Knight (2021) is writer and director David Lowery’s return to the big screen, playing locally at AMC and Marcus theaters. A departure from Lowery’s hushed and subtle A Ghost Story (2017), The Green Knight dabbles more in loosely connected allegories and metaphors. This film allows the narrative to slowly wash over viewers, taking them on an introspective adventure as opposed to steam-rolling them with action. A postmodern fairy tale with roots in the 14th century alliterative poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, the film employs dialogue that hearkens back to Olde or Middle English. Yet, dialect waivers between modern cadence and the stately import of Arthurian legend, as the whole production subverts expectations of the hero’s journey with delightful results.

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Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, a somewhat aimless young man who longs to be part of his ailing uncle King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) round table. We see him gallivanting about with his girlfriend Essel (Alicia Vikander) on Christmas morning before a merrymaking feast. Later on, Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury) instructs him to pay attention to what he sees during the festivities. She is practicing some sort of Pagan ritual away from the guests, possibly with the intention of aiding her son in fulfilling what he believes is his destiny. During the festivities, the lumbering, wood-clad Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters the chambers with an imposing challenge: any knight who can strike a blow on him will reap rewards and celebrity for a year. However, if successful, on the following Christmas, his assailant must seek out the Green Knight so an equal blow can be delivered.

Sir Gawain rises to meet this test of his ability. Without revealing the details of this specific scene, his decision may have been a questionable one—viewers will need to discern whether or not Gawain is worthy of such celebrity. As the year quickly passes, Gawain readies himself to embark on this long and arduous journey to find The Green Knight. Along the way, meets a host of colorful characters, some with good intentions and some with less than honorable ones, like the scavenger (played by the ever-unsettling Barry Keoghan of 2017’s Killing Of A Sacred Deer), who at first presents himself as eager to help. Gawain encounters giants roaming the landscape, a magical fox, and the Lord (Joel Edgerton)’s beautiful temptress of a wife (also played by Vikander). Each passing character seems to reveal more about the mysteries of Sir Gawain as Lowery allows the metaphors of honor, bravery, and integrity to unspool in an interpretive way.

Fairy tales told to children often present their heroes or heroines with a moral quandary of some sort, and they have to meet those challenges with not only physical strength but strength of character as well. Here, in one memorable scene, Sir Gawain encounters Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who presents him with a daunting task that requires courage and a bit of suspension of disbelief. As Gawain has not revealed himself to be the most noble of creatures, the director lets the suspense build in bearing witness to Winifred’s reliance on Gawain’s skills and bravery. Inevitably, there are moments when he seems to summon the will to overcome his fear to do the noble thing. But, otherwise, Sir Gawain shows that he would much rather take the easy route. If this tale were taking place in this decade, he would be running around Camelot taking selfies and slaying beasts for the ‘gram.

The film’s landscapes are lush and rich, worthy of the Arthurian source material. Patel shines, in particular, as the unsteady not-quite-hero making his way through a magic and enchanted world. Fear lurks behind his eyes, along with a longing for glory and prosperity. Daniel Hart’s score serves as a powerful accompaniment to the strange wonders Gawain encounters along his journey. The film’s sound editing also adds an eerie dynamic early on when the Green Knight first enters the frame. When the queen (Kate Dickie) reads the mysterious knight’s edict, you can feel the bass of actor Ineson’s voice rise up through your feet. It’s just begging to be seen in a theatrical setting.

One of the film’s major strengths is its ability to dissect what it means to possess honor and integrity, and whether these attributes are earned by demonstrating a solid moral character. Sir Gawain is the type of man who craves all the accolades typically bestowed upon a knight, but isn’t sure if he can commit to the work to earn these rewards. Even his response to the Green Knight’s challenge turns out to be short-sighted: Gawain doesn’t have the wisdom it would take to fully ponder the consequences of his decision. While the title of The Green Knight surely refers to the imposing, wooden, tree-like antagonist, the phrase is also a fitting description of Sir Gawain, a novice who lacks a true knight’s depth of experience.

The Green Knight ultimately offers a daring allegorical version of Camelot. What resonates most with viewers will speak to whatever part of Gawain’s journey they happen to be on at the present moment.

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