If Die Hard is a Christmas movie, so is The Green Knight. Set over two snowy Yules in the 14th century, David Lowery’s extraordinary adaptation of the classic chivalric poem might as well sit alongside the other holiday classics since it doesn’t fit comfortably anywhere else. Art horror? Psychotropic romance? Lit-crit slasher? Lowery nods to a dozen influences but somehow makes a film that feels utterly unique – a beautiful, frightening, uncompromising watch that plenty will hate and plenty more won’t be able to stop thinking about.
The story is simple: a year in the life of a wannabe knight who knows that he’s going to die. It’s Christmas morning, and King Arthur (Mission: Impossible‘s Sean Harris) is lording it over a grand feast while his slacker nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) is waking up in a brothel.
Gawain is desperate to prove himself, and the perfect opportunity presents itself when a mossy God/monster called The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) strides into town daring someone to strike him and, in return, to accept the same strike back in exactly one year. Being young and cocky and stupid, Gawain chops his head off. When the headless knight stands up and starts laughing, the clock starts ticking.
Or it would start ticking if clocks had been invented in the 14th century – Lowery instead using a surreal medieval puppet play to show a wheel of time slowly cranking, just one striking visual device among many to carry the film’s themes of chivalry, religion, nature and legacy in the most abstract, arresting way possible.
The Green Knight’s literary roots show through its structure, broken up here into several loose chapters that follow Gawain on hallucinogenic adventures with petty thieves (Barry Keoghan), alien titans, headless ghosts (Erin Kellyman, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier) and cryptic queens (Alicia Vikander, who plays two roles, helping to blur the lines of unreality). More than just poetic in form, Lowery’s movie looks and feels impressionistic at every turn – with stunning use of music and cinematography making a film you feel rather than watch: a bombastic medieval road-trip layered over something ancient, earthy and magical.
Running a creeping sense of dread beneath every frame, and easily distracted by stray plots (or just by how downright beautiful everything looks) it needs someone like Patel to anchor everything to – a star turn for an actor who somehow crams an entire lifetime into his one-year transformation from boy to man. Other actors drift wonderfully in and out but this is Patel’s film, making the role instantly iconic.
Anyone who’s followed Lowery’s career won’t be surprised to see how skilfully everything comes together – with The Green Knight building on the art-house heft of A Ghost Story, the adventurous world-building of Pete’s Dragon and the elegiac nuance of The Old Man And The Gun – but this still feels like a big, bold new step for the director.
- Director: David Lowery
- Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Barry Keoghan
- Release date: September 24 (in UK cinemas and on Amazon Prime Video)