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film review

Dev Patel stars as Gawain in director David Lowery's The Green Knight.Eric Zachanowich/A24 / Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

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  • The Green Knight
  • Written and directed by David Lowery
  • Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander and Sarita Choudhury
  • Classification R; 125 minutes
  • Opens July 30 in theatres across Canada

Critic’s Pick

The movies have not been kind to King Arthur’s court. Think Sean Connery in 1995′s First Knight. Clive Owen in 2004′s King Arthur. The year 2017 alone dealt a particularly mighty blow, with the Arthurian era getting mangled by not one but two big-budget medieval migraines (Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight). But just as legend foretold – somewhere in an ancient film-critic text, I’m sure – now along comes The Green Knight, a beautiful, haunting and enigmatic work that reckons with the folklore’s grave and tragic elements to deliver a masterpiece of blood, sex and magic.

At first glance, director David Lowery might not be the obvious choice for such a rough and strange endeavour. The American filmmaker, who burst onto the scene with the Terrence Malick-y Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and has a healthy side career as an editor, is more a practitioner of the slow-burn independent drama. Then again, his interests have also centred on the fantastical, such as A Ghost Story and his tender reimagining of Pete’s Dragon – films that seemed to be scratching an itch for the epic.

The Green Knight, then, offers Lowery an opportunity to step up and claim the crown.

Loosely based on the anonymously written 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery’s film focuses on the saga of a headstrong but unproven young man (Dev Patel) whose moral fortitude is put to the test in a world that is dark and full of terrors.

At the story’s start, Gawain is a libidinous but charming scoundrel, wandering the grey and lifeless castle grounds in search of carnal, earthly pleasures. But both his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his mother (Sarita Choudhury), whose real name might be considered a slight plot reveal, have larger plans for Gawain, which are put in motion one day with the arrival of a strange, towering warrior.

More vegetation than man – as rendered by Lowery’s team, he looks like a cross between Swamp Thing and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot – this Green Knight throws a deadly challenge to the King’s assembled Round Table: strike me down and claim my prized axe – but prepare to receive a similar blow one year hence. There is, naturally, a twist to provocation: one that sets Gawain off on a long, perilous journey outside the castle walls, where the laws of the old faith and the new are at constant war.

More vegetation than man, the Green Knight throws a deadly challenge to the King’s assembled Round Table.Eric Zachanowich/A24 / Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Also seemingly at battle in the film is the tension between homage and imagination. The Green Knight’s aesthetic is built on a wildly diverse collection of cinematic references: There are touches of everything from sincere 80s fantasies such as Ladyhawke and Willow to the more transgressive work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Lars von Trier (including one CGI-rendered character familiar to viewers of Antichrist).

Yet the power of Lowery’s work here is to filter his many influences into a singular vision that feels entirely in his sole possession. As Gawain wanders a sometimes enchanting, sometimes sickening landscape – one jammed with enjoyably twitchy performers, including Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander in a dual role – Lowery creates a world that confounds and compels.

It is also a world that, crucially, does not contort itself to expectations of the medieval quest genre. “Bravery” is less a through-line here than a notion to be interrogated, roughly and without mercy. And when Gawain’s honour is put to the ultimate test late in the film – sparking a long and wordless sequence that left me close to tears – the answers that Lowery comes up with risk infuriating. But such is the cost of an uncompromising film. Lowery sticks his neck out as far as the Green Knight, fully aware that some audiences might prefer his head cut clean off, too.

While I suspect that the film’s style is strong enough to carry any performer, Lowery’s production benefits enormously from his choice of leading man. It has been a distinct pleasure watching Patel grow into a confident, enigmatic actor over the years, slippery in the best ways. As Gawain, he’s tasked with wrestling to the ground life’s most difficult moment: knowing who you are, and trying like hell to convince yourself that you can be someone else. He meets the challenge handsomely. All hail the king.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.