When David Lowery was eight years old he submitted his first screenplay to Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana Theater on W. Lancaster Avenue, whose Children’s Playhouse series will be celebrating its 60th anniversary next year. The budding filmmaker was hoping they would produce his play about Sir Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail. They passed but encouraged him to keep at it. Over the last three decades, Lowery’s love for Arthurian lore never waned, evident in the form of his latest release, an adaptation of the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Not since John Boorman’s 1981 medieval epic “Excalibur” has there been such a visually stunning and enchanting tale based on King Arthur mythology. “The Green Knight” is a monumental achievement.
This is the fifth time Sir Gawain’s tale has been adapted for the screen. The most well-known being the Golan-Globus produced 1984 version (“Sword of the Valiant’) starring Sean Connery and Miles O’Keeffe. You don’t remember it? Well neither did I so don’t sweat it. David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” is the definitive interpretation of the chivalric romance with a first-rate performance by Dev Patel (“The Personal History of David Copperfield”) as King Arthur’s nephew who steps up to accept the Green Knight’s challenge when none of the Knights of the Roundtable rise to the occasion.
Like Boorman’s R-rated “Excalibur” there is graphic violence and eroticism in “The Green Knight” although it’s toned down compared to the ’81 film. Still, Lowery was smart to avoid going after a PG-13 rating for this supernatural adult tale. The film maintains a sober tone yet at any given moment there is a sense that should Lowery have veered off course we’d be in Monty Python territory. Thankfully the Green Knight never exclaims, “Come on you pansy!” to Sir G.
The story opens on Christmas Day as man-child Gawain (Patel) fresh from a night of debauchery with his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) attends a holiday gathering at Camelot where he’s asked by King Arthur to sit beside him and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) in the place of Gawain’s mother and Arthur’s sister (Sarita Choudhury) who chose not to attend. When the King asks his nephew to tell him a story about one of his adventures, Gawain realizes he hasn’t had any to which Guinevere adds, “Yet.” She must have had a premonition because young Gawain is about to embark on a journey that will become a folktale passed down from one generation to another.
The festive mood is interrupted by the arrival of the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a towering figure who resembles a cross between a man and a tree. He carries a large axe and while his presence is menacing, he assures the King that he’s come to play a simple Christmas game. Any knight may try and land a blow against him and in return, he will return the exact same blow to his foe in exactly one year on his turf, The Green Chapel.
When none of the King’s knights respond, Arthur (who is sick and frail) begins to rise to the challenge only to be interrupted by Gawain who accepts the Green Knight’s test. Arthur gives his nephew his prized sword (yeah, that one) and with one swift and mighty blow, Gawain beheads the Green Knight. Game over. Well, not so fast.
To everyone’s surprise, the Green Knight’s headless body rises and picks up the lopped-off head, holding it up to remind Gawain of their rendezvous next year where he will return the exact blow to the young knight-in-waiting. The timeline quickly moves forward one year as Gawain rides off for his date with fate.
Written by Lowery who took a few small liberties with the 14th-century poem, “The Green Knight” is visually stunning thanks to Andrew Droz Palermo’s striking cinematography. The film, like “Excalibur”, was shot in Ireland except for a couple of scenes that were filmed at Sansom Park in Fort Worth. The special effects by Weta Digital, the company that worked alongside Lowery on “Pete’s Dragon” and “A Ghost Story,” bring the mystical story to life as Gawain’s adventure incorporates elements of fantasy and the supernatural.
Patel is superb as Gawain as he leads a solid cast that features Vikander on double duty, who apart from Essel, also plays the Lady of a castle. Her noble husband is portrayed by a very good Joel Edgerton who offers the young knight hospitality but under peculiar terms. Irish actor Barry Keoghan who gave us a chilling performance in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” has a cameo as the leader of a group of scavengers that intercept Gawain on his quest. Finally, actor Ralph Ineson under a ton of prosthetics and makeup as the towering Green Knight is perfect in the role despite the fact that we don’t see much of him. Lowery wanted Ineson for the role because of his distinctive and gravelly voice. The actor has appeared in “Game of Thrones,” “Ready Player One,” and most recently “Gunpowder Milkshake” but to get a true sense of why he was perfect for the Green Knight you must go back to Robert Eggers’s 2016 film “The Witch” where Ineson played William, the rigid head of the Puritan family at the heart of the film. Just watch the trailer and listen to his delivery.
“The Green Knight” is an epic fantasy that keeps the audience enthralled for a swift 92 minutes. In the end, you’re ready to watch it all over again. Writer-director and local filmmaker David Lowery tackles the Arthurian story while delivering his masterpiece.
Now showing in theaters