Apart from maybe Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, there hasn’t really been an individual actor more exciting to follow over the last decade than Dev Patel. Not all of his films have been winners, but he’s that rare actor who seems to actively get better with each performance, picking up something new with each and every film he stars in, and he reaches perhaps his loftiest dramatic heights yet in David Lowery’s The Green Knight, a hushed yet astounding new take on the Arthurian mythos.
Patel stars as Gawain, nephew of King Arthur (here played by Sean Harris on simply mesmerising form) and wannabe Knight of the Round Table. Gawain seeks honour and nobility, but is more comfortable in the local bawdy houses, and is unable to regale the king with any tales of courage when asked to provide the court’s Christmas Day entertainment. This is instead provided by the mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a hulking stranger seemingly built of tree bark. He issues a challenge to the warriors of Camelot to land a free strike on him, a strike that will then be paid back by the Knight exactly one year later.
Keen to establish his reputation, Gawain takes his swing and takes off the Green Knight’s head in a single blow – the Green Knight then promptly picks his head up, reiterates the terms of his game, and rides off, leaving Gawain with a year to prepare for what looks likely to be a mortal retaliation. Patel, immediately at home with Lowery’s sparse but lyrical dialogue, does wonders as a man trying to work out what honour is actually worth – it’s an important thing, but is it the *only* thing? His Gawain has some high-minded ideals, but is profoundly human, enjoying a drink and a shag, crying and bargaining when he’s afraid, hardly the unimpeachable figure of chivalry he feels he should be.
Patel’s performance perfectly suits a film rooted in the earth and moss of ancient Britain, all its fantastical elements rising naturally out of the sweeping vistas and dense forests, all of which are simply beautifully shot. Thick grey mists give way to verdant green landscapes, blood-red ponds, and warming yellows as Gawain gets closer and closer to his destiny. Magic, of all moral stripes, is baked into this world – Gawain himself is both a devout Christian and a true believer in the power of witchcraft – and so when talking foxes and tribes of nude giants amble across the screen, it is enchanting and awe-inspiring without ever feeling silly.
That’s not to say The Green Knight is without a sense of humour – no film with Joel Edgerton as a medieval swinger and Dev Patel jizzing into an enchanted scarf is playing with an entirely straight face, and the Yuletide setting lends itself to amusingly incongruous declarations of ‘Merry Christmas’, even as violent magic erupts around the characters. But this is a serious film, earnest not only in its own right but also in its explorations of the original poem’s moral code – a code that no longer makes sense to us.
Gawain’s march towards death might seem unnecessary to a moral audience, but doggedly he forges ahead, regardless of the obstacles. In a neat touch, The Green Knight’s structure echoes that most beloved Arthurian film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, similarly broken down into rather self-contained vignettes that eventually add up to an entire quest. It means that Patel is the only constant – the Green Knight himself bookends events, and Alicia Vikander pops up in two separate crucial roles, each of whom impart a vital trinket to Gawain, but everyone else is met only in passing.
Of these smaller roles, Harris and Kate Dickie are brilliant as Arthur and Guinevere, and Barry Keoghan is customarily menacing as a guide-turned-bandit who you sense is bound to his villainous role by forces beyond his comprehension – there are plenty of these clever little moments of magic and prophecy that will reward attentive and returning viewers.
Patel has to spend a lot of his time alone in an unnervingly desolate take on ancient Britain – Arthur himself has grown old and sunken-eyed, and the power of his Camelot is clearly on the wane as Gawain stumbles upon unfamiliar battlefields and into the territories of untamed creatures and spirits. It makes for a consistently fascinating world to explore, by turns majestic and eerie, backed by an equally unique and vibrant score from Daniel Hart. With a genuine sense of wonder, Lowery has managed to make a centuries-old story feel like something entirely new, yet he hasn’t had to kowtow to modernity to do so, embracing the medieval relationship with death and the unknown in a way that slowly rewires your brain as you watch. It’s mythmaking of the highest order from one of the most unpredictable auteurs working today.