The Green Knight is most definitely not going to be for everyone. I’m not entirely positive that it was for me, but I’m still glad that I saw it. If nothing else, it is an absolutely gorgeous film to look at. The cinematography is stunning, the costumes are incredible, and the practical makeup effects for the Green Knight are a reminder that not everything in the fantasy and sci-fi genre needs to be CGI. Writer and director David Lowery manages to make an incredibly old story applicable to the modern world, but if ambiguity isn’t your thing you’re out of luck, and will probably walk away from this movie feeling more frustrated than anything else. One thing that is not at all ambiguous however is the fact that Dev Patel is one hell of a leading man, and we’ll all be the poorer for it if that’s not something Hollywood takes full advantage of going forward.
Between The Green Knight, and the delightful The Personal History of David Copperfield, this is an actor who is more than capable of carrying a film, and The Green Knight was an incredibly difficult one to pull off. A story like this — one that is entirely about a single person — hinges completely on the audience being willing to go on the main character’s personal journey, and if the actor who plays that main character doesn’t compel viewers, the entire thing falls apart. That’s a daunting task, and Dev Patel achieves it seemingly effortlessly. He is one screen for almost every single moment of the film, and somehow you never wish that the story would stray from him to focus on someone else.
There is undoubtedly something appealing about the chivalrous and honorable hero, who never does the wrong thing or wavers from the righteous path. But as comforting as that may be, it’s not always the most interesting. Far more compelling is seeing the sometimes tumultuous journey of how someone becomes the hero, rooting for them as they struggle along the way. When we meet Gawain in this movie, he is not at all the stuff of Arthurian legend. He’s more than a little aimless, and is waiting for an opportunity to prove himself. He’s so desperate for his chance in fact, that when it comes in the form of a challenge from the titular Green Knight, Gawain wildly overshoots the mark. During a numbingly boring Christmas Day feast at King Arthur’s court, the arborous Green Knight appears, and lays down a challenge: anyone who is able to land a blow on him will become the new owner of his super fancy, shiny axe, but in return that person must seek him out the next Christmas and he will do to them exactly what was done to him. Assuming that the honor he seeks comes in the form of doing something extreme, Gawain chops off the Knight’s head. That would not have been my move, but hey, we’ve all done things that don’t make a ton of sense in the heat of the moment, and hubris is a staple in stories like these. The clearly supernatural Knight, unsurprisingly, doesn’t die and instead picks up his head and laughs menacingly as he leaves, the mistake that was just made being abundantly obvious.
Going so big highlights one of Gawain’s biggest issues: his belief that honor is just something you can go out, achieve gloriously, and come back home with, instead of being something one earns through the way they live their life. There are several times when Gawain is not an honorable man at all, and moments when he is, if not unlikeable, at least a challenging character to get behind. He’s emotionally unavailable to his…love interest? Girlfriend? It’s hard to even know what to call Alicia Vikander’s character Essel, because Gawain is so closed off to her that it’s difficult to say how he truly feels about her at all. You almost wonder what it is Essel sees in him, but Dev Patel absolutely nails that quiet, brooding “I bet I could change him” vibe, doing so much with his physicality even when he’s not saying a word (especially in the last twenty minutes of the film, when there’s almost no dialogue whatsoever).
The twists and turns of Gawain’s physical journey to go meet his presumable end at the hands of the Green Knight are matched by the twists and turns of an emotional journey too. Gawain is insecure and afraid when he’s tricked by a thief and robbed, he gets lonely and allows a curious fox to become an animal friend of sorts. He has one truly contemptible moment when he comes across the home of a spirit, a young woman named Winifred, who gives him a classic hero task. She explains that she was killed when a man whose advances she spurned cut off her head, and asks Gawain to retrieve it from a place she can’t venture — the bottom of the lake outside her home. His response is to ask what she’ll do for him in exchange. This woman was murdered by having her head cut off, the very thing Gawain himself fears he’s facing when he goes to meet the Green Knight, and instead of feeling sympathy for her plight, he wants to know what he can get out of the deal. He also doesn’t come off at all well when he finds himself in the home of a Lord and Lady (the Lady is also played by Alicia Vikander. This is a weird movie.) I’ll just say that so much off the wall insanity happens in that place that if there was going to be a point when an actor lost control of their performance and let the story they’re telling get away from them, this would have been it. Dev Patel juggles all of it, never dropping a single ball.
Does it help that throughout the entirety of The Green Knight he has amazing hair, and looks unbelievably good in flowing capes and chainmail? Yes it does. And, whether or not I imagined myself beside him, also donning a beautiful jewel toned cape, during some of the film’s slower moments is between me and my thoughts. (I totally did.) But I don’t want to sell him short. He balances a difficult character wonderfully.
The Green Knight was previously only playing in theaters, but it’s now also available to rent, so from the comfort of your own home you can take it all in and decide which romance adaptation Dev Patel would be the most perfect for, because with his leading man status firmly cemented, someone needs to make that happen as soon as possible.