Reeder’s Movie Reviews: Sir Gawain And The Green Knight

Sir Gawain looks behind him while standing next to a horse.
Eric Zachanowich / A24

When a movie begins with the caption, “A filmed adaptation of a chivalric romance by Anonymous,” you’re probably thinking this is not destined to be a blockbuster hit at the box office or on a streaming service. But if you know the work of the American writer-director-editor David Lowery, then you’re looking forward to another vivid, contemplative story about the meaning of life.

For his latest picture, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Lowery has both adapted and elaborated on a fourteenth-century classic of English literature. He succeeds quite brilliantly. Dev Patel, the Indian-British actor who first gained international fame as the star of Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” gives a superb, nuanced performance as Gawain, the nephew of the legendary King Arthur. During a Christmas season banquet at Camelot, he boldly accepts the challenge of the ominous, tree-like Green Knight to embark on a year-long journey in quest of honor, with the certainty of death at its conclusion. Gawain, no matter what the cost, needs to create a myth about himself. 

Unlike a typical Hollywood production, this odyssey foregoes conventional action scenes.  Instead, it becomes a meditation on the human condition–on toxic masculinity, celebrity, valor and violence–while respecting the major elements of the original text: the girdle, the friendly fox, showers of leaves, exchanges of gifts/winnings, poetic language, lustful temptation, human-like giants and, importantly, a beheading game. The movie also embraces all of the poem’s ambiguity. The color green, for example, can have many connotations.

In a way, Lowery’s 2017 film, “A Ghost Story,” a deeply melancholic and richly rewarding study of death, loss and the resonance of life starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, anticipates this story. “Sir Gawain” manages to make a mediaeval text seem psychologically modern and relevant. Lowery and his team have thoroughly integrated the cinematography, art direction, costume design and music (by classically trained violinist-composer Daniel Hart) to give the picture a magical, you-are-there feel.

The entire cast distinguish themselves. Academy Award-winner Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) portrays both Essel (Gawain’s sensible lover) and The Lady, the very embodiment of seduction and philosophy. Joel Edgerton plays The Lord, whose hospitality comes with a price. Sarita Choudhury appears as Morgan le Fay, Gawain’s enchantress-mother, who craves greatness for her son.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is, like most of David Lowery’s work, an acquired taste. But if you’re prepared to immerse yourself in a story rich with character, emotion, symbolism and poetry (both verbal and visual), then you’ll savor this journey. This is a story well worth telling, and watching.

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