A 700-Year-Old Poem Becomes an Existential Modern Fantasy Film

This summer’s best film was conceived nearly seven centuries ago. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an epic Middle English poem from the 14th century, written by an unknown author. It follows Sir Gawain (played here by Dev Patel), a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, who accepts the challenge of the mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who arrives at the court on New Year’s Day (Christmas in this adaptation). The Knight allows Gawain to land one blow on him, on the condition that he return the blow in kind in exactly one year. Thinking he has outwitted the outsider, Gawain decapitates him … only for the being to pick up his head and remind him of the game’s rules as he rides off. One year later, Gawain embarks on a quest to meet the Green Knight again, knowing the only honorable move is to hold up his end of the bargain, even if it means certain death.

Writer-director David Lowery has adapted this classic tale as a solemn and meditative look at life and loss that challenges traditional ideas of “chivalry” and “honor,” revealing the emptiness beneath them. Lowery frames Gawain’s journey as a sort of purgatorial experience he must undergo to prove his worth. He runs into brigands, a ghost, giants, a talking fox, and most importantly a Lord and Lady (Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander — the latter also plays Gawain’s commoner lover back at Camelot) whose seductive ways nearly derail his appointment. Each encounter pits Gawain’s resolve and beliefs against the cruelty of mankind and the natural world.

This version of Gawain is equally worldly and idealistic, longing for the esteem of being a knight, but easily tempted by offers of ease and pleasure. Patel’s wearily nervous performance perfectly highlights his existential terror at the choice before him: death or a dishonorable life. This uncompromisingly somber interpretation of the poem makes The Green Knight a Bergman-esque meditation on mortality. It brings a 700-year-old story to life, only to remind viewers of the perils of living.

The Green Knight is now playing in theaters.

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