Arthurian legend is hardly holy text in Hollywood, as a long line of overgroomed Robin Hoods and revisionist rock & roll jousting epics can attest. Writer-director David Lowery's loose adaptation of the 14th-century story-poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes its own liberties — not least the color-blind casting of its lead, Dev Patel. Yet his film (in theaters July 30) feels like a different kind of beast: a quixotic, scantly plotted reverie steeped in dream logic and dazzling imagery.
The courage and gallantry of Patel's young Gawain is assumed at the outset — he's an aristocratic Sir, after all — though it's never really been tested; instead, he spends most days like a medieval man of leisure, content with his wine and his woman (Alicia Vikander). But he is also nephew to the childless King Arthur (a gentle, consumptive Sean Harris, far removed from Mission: Impossible villainy), and his presumptive heir.
Eric Zachanowich / A24 Films Dev Patel in 'The Green Knight'
"Tell me a tale of yourself so that I may know thee," the king asks at a Christmas banquet, not unkindly. "I have none to tell," Gawain shrugs, reluctantly. Until a challenge later that evening offers a fateful test: One blow struck before the royal court against the Groot-like Green Knight, a gravel-voiced behemoth gifted with Norse-god proportions and skin like a petrified oak tree — and the promise of an equal blow to be returned in one year's time.
No other chain-mailed bystander seems willing to take up the sword, and so a chastened Gawain, eager to make some kind of mark, becomes the knight slayer. He swings the blade easily, but at what price when 12 months come to pass? What follows is technically a quest — there be wily thieves and headless maidens, riddles and temptations and talking foxes; even a clan of mute, mournful giants who move across the earth silently, like melancholy kaiju. Homeland's Sarita Choudhury appears as Gawain's watchful mother Morgan le Fay, a sort of quiet sorceress, and Joel Edgerton as a pensive, possibly malevolent lord, with Dunkirk's great Barry Keoghan dropping by for one memorable scene as a scheming trickster in rags.
But Lowery (Pete's Dragon, A Ghost Story) doesn't hurry his hero's journey; Green is filmmaking as slow food, full of natural light and long, freighted silences. Even the references to its famed source material are outlined in self-aware air quotes, a filigreed title card at the outset announcing itself as "A Filmed Adaptation of the Chivalric Romance." In a way, the movie feels almost like Marvel antimatter, an auteur's willful response to whiz-bang emptiness and Infinity Stones. Knight is ultimately a tale of honor though, and a deeply moral one — inscrutable, but haunting too. Grade: B