“The Green Knight” offers a reminder, if any were needed, why you don’t see many movies adapted from 14th-century poems. Even those intrigued by tales of King Arthur and his knights might find this ambitious film as impenetrable as armor, although the lush imagery and epic tone provide some compensation for embarking on this weird, hallucinatory trip.
Writer-director David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”) must be persuasive in a pitch meeting, since he sold someone on financing a project based on an anonymously written tale devoted to Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), Arthur’s nephew, who embarks on a chivalric quest.
Introduced as a less-heralded member of the court, Gawain is surprised when Arthur (Sean Harris) asks that he join him at dinner, and further taken aback when the King requests a tale that will help to know him better.
“I have none to tell,” Gawain responds, to which the Queen (Kate Dickie) adds portentously, “Yet.”
An opportunity quickly presents itself, as Gawain bravely (and perhaps foolishly) steps forward to meet the challenge of a mysterious, giant figure known as the Green Knight, who has barged into Camelot. Confronting the creature with a mighty whack, he’s told that he must journey to the Green Chapel in a year’s time, when the knight has pledged to continue their “game” by returning the favor.
The prospect means Gawain faces what looks like almost certain death, but he strikes out armed with the love of a local maiden (Alicia Vikander) and encouragement from his mother (Sarita Choudhury), who assures him he can survive what awaits him.
What ensues unfolds at an almost-hypnotic pace, filled with strange encounters and interludes, broken up by an on-screen script that hints at the next leg of Gawain’s ordeal.
The movies that come to mind related to this mythology – among them “Excalibur,” “Camelot” and even “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” along with more recent incarnations like “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” – don’t offer much help preparing for what Lowery has in store. The journey includes an episodic mix of ghosts, giants, temptresses and mysterious beasts, with each dream-like detour prolonging Gawain’s march to the inevitable showdown and the ultimate test of his mettle and manhood.
Occupying practically every scene, Patel makes a striking and relatable hero, spending much of the time as confused as the audience is apt to be. Indeed, those expecting a rousing adventure should be forewarned, since the action is generally more psychological than stirring.
For all that the movie is visually interesting, building toward a finish that’s both thought-provoking and as vague as what preceded it.
“The Green Knight’s” sheer originality makes the film worth considering for anyone with a taste for such material. Whether that merits the pilgrimage to a theater as opposed to the comfort of one’s castle could well be a horse – or knight – of a different color.
“The Green Knight” premieres July 30 in US theaters. It’s rated R.