The Green Knight movie review: Dev Patel excels in an exquisite fever dream
Dev Patel is a bold choice for the part of a knight, also consistent with writer-director David Lowery’s other creative decisions in the film.
castDev Patel, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Erin Kellyman, Alicia Vikander, Ralph Ineson, Megan Tiernan, Kate Dickie, Sarita Choudhury, Barry Keoghan
There’s something about Dev Patel. The scrawny kid, who danced awkwardly to an AR Rahman song at the end of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), has blossomed into a man with an unmistakable pathos in his eyes.
Those eyes appear more than once in David Lowery’s The Green Knight where Patel plays Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew. We see those sad eyes when the King (Sean Harris) acknowledges him as his ‘own blood’, and insists he sit beside him. It happens again when a mysterious Lord (Joel Edgerton) asks him what he will earn from his quest. “Honour?” Gawain asks, the doubt in his voice audible. “Are you asking me?” asks the Lord, and only then do we hear Gawain say ‘honour’ a little more assertively, which is betrayed by his eyes that don’t seem fully convinced. They’re both powerful moments indicative of how the film is trying to break its genre conventions, and reaching farther for some kind of ‘truth’.
Patel is a bold choice for the part of a knight, also consistent with Lowery’s other creative decisions in the film. Whether it’s hues of grey and green in the visuals, Daniel Hart’s haunting score, or even the film’s dialogue that seems to be trying to preserve the rhymes of the prose it’s based on, Lowery seems in complete control. He knows exactly where to be ‘faithful’ to the genre, and where to upend it.
Based on the 14th-century chivalric romance, Sir Gawain & The Green Knight (by Anonymous), The Green Knight begins on an ominous note. A feeble-looking King Arthur seems to be staring at the end, as he expresses his regrets to his nephew, and his gratitude to the many knights seated in the Camelot on Christmas day. He wants to hear a ‘tale’, to which Gawain responds that he has none. “You have none to tell, yet”, adds the Queen. When Arthur asks the others, the main door opens, and an eerie looking shadow appears with an olive branch in his hand. The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters the gathering with a proposal for all the knights in the hall. Whoever can strike a blow on the Green Knight can have his axe, however, they would be bound to return to the Green Chapel the following Christmas, and receive an equal blow.
Perpetually drinking through his days, and spending nights in brothels, Gawain sees this as an opportunity to become a ‘legend’, like many others in the court. He probably hasn’t even thought it through, but looking at his uncle’s failing health, maybe it’s time for a new ‘hero’ to rise. Tales of valour need drastic measures. Gawain takes the Excalibur, and strikes the Green Knight on the neck, who had already previously laid down his axe. There’s a heavy silence in the room. Did Gawain do the ‘right’ thing? Especially after the Green Knight yielded? The silence is broken by a sinister laugh. The Green Knight’s body wakes up, and picks up his head. “One year hence”, he warns Gawain.
Lowery frames his protagonist in mid close-ups through the film, almost asking us to look into him. It’s a fascinating choice, because Patel’s face gives off so many possibilities. His high-born ignorance, the flirty glint in his eye, the sheepishness with which he faces his uncle each time, and the genuine vulnerability when he’s posed with questions about his quest. Does he know what he’s trying to do? What is he trying to prove? Is he genuinely a good man? Is he a coward? Is he meant for greatness? Gawain seems to be struggling with all these questions as he embarks on his journey to complete the challenge issued by the Green Knight. And the film uses this to ask pointed questions about masculinity and hero worship. “Is this, all there is?” Gawain asks the Green Knight during the climax.
As Gawain’s doting mother, Sarita Choudhary is an eerie presence in the film. Appearing to take part in a pagan ritual right before the Green Knight shows up in front of Arthur and Gawain, she also appears in Gawain’s fever dreams, while he rests on his way to the Green Chapel. Barry Keoghan stars in a superb cameo, playing a scavenger, oozing paranoia with a plain smile.
Apart from Patel, another surprise in the film is Alicia Vikander, who curiously plays two roles: that of Essel (Gawain’s peasant lover), and a lady in the mysterious Lord’s house. Essel asks why ‘silly men’ go around risking their lives for ‘greatness’. “Is goodness not enough?”, she asks. As the lady, she plays a provocateur teasing Gawain with riddles and questions, almost as if to prove he’s a ‘real’ knight.
It’s in the final 20 minutes that The Green Knight takes full flight, and Lowery’s ambitious vision comes together like few recent films have. Like in Ghost Story (2017), Lowery manipulates time and goes to unexpected places, and it’s over here that we (again!) focus on Dev Patel’s eyes. Like his fictional counterpart, even the actor has come of age in this Hollywood journey.
Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
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