700-year-old poem becomes modern, existential fantasy film

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This summer’s best film was conceived almost seven centuries ago. Sir Gauvain and the Green Knight is an epic poem in Middle English 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 court on New Years Day (Christmas in this adaptation ). The knight allows Gwain to deal him a blow, on condition that he returns the blow in kind in exactly one year. Thinking that he has outsmarted the stranger, Gwain beheads him … only so that the being raises his head and reminds him of the rules of the game as he walks away. A year later, Gauvain sets out on a quest to meet the Green Knight again, knowing that the only honorable gesture is to live up to his end of the bargain, even if it means certain death.

Writer-director David Lowery has adapted this classic tale as a solemn, meditative look at life and loss that challenges traditional ideas of “chivalry” and “honor”, revealing the void beneath them. Lowery presents Gauvain’s journey as a sort of purgatory experience that he must undergo to prove his worth. He meets bandits, a ghost, giants, a talking fox and above all a lord and a lady (Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander – the latter also plays Gwain’s commoner lover in Camelot) whose alluring ways almost derail his nomination. Each encounter pits Gauvain’s determination and beliefs against the cruelty of humanity and the natural world.

This version of Gauvain is also worldly and idealistic, yearning for the esteem of being a knight, but easily tempted by offers of ease and pleasure. Patel’s nervous performance perfectly highlights his existential terror at the choice available to him: death or a dishonorable life. This decidedly dark 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 dangers of life.

The green knight is now playing in theaters.

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