Based on the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the movie stars Dev Patel as King Arthur’s nephew and Knight of the Round Table, Sir Gawain. The young man is headstrong and rash but, despite his bravado, he says, “I fear I am not meant for greatness.”
The young knight sees a chance to prove his mettle when the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a larger-than-life, green skinned “tester of men,” throws down a challenge to King Arthur. “O greatest of kings, let one of your knights try and land a blow against me,” he says. “Indulge me in this game.”
Gawain impulsively accepts, charging at the stranger, removing his head with one blow.
But the challenge isn’t over.
Picking his own head up off the floor, the Green Knight mocks Gawain, commanding him to meet again in one year’s time at a cursed place, the Green Chapel, to finish their duel. As the headless adversary gallops off, Gawain’s quest to test his prowess begins. The journey to the Green Chapel is a dangerous adventure, fraught with supernatural forces, betrayal and challengers who will test the strength of his character.
“What do you hope to gain from all of this?” he is asked. “Honour,” Gawain replies. “That is why a knight does what he does.”
Calling “The Green Knight” an adventure implies that it is also exciting. It has all the earmarks of an old school “Lord of the Rings” style adventure story—there are trippy giants, a talking fox, a headless woman and more—but exciting it is not.
Director David Lowery has made a cerebral movie about finding one’s true path in life through trials and temptations. His retelling of the classic poem is dense, deliberate and often beautiful. But just as often it is willfully obtuse as it gets lost in the surreal deconstruction of Gawain’s journey. As a result, the film is oft times more interesting than actually entertaining.
Near the end of the film Gawain asks, “Is this all there is?” Oddly enough, life imitated art in that moment as I found myself wondering the same thing.