Christ’s sacrifice and the erotic death wish of earthly glory: these are the components of this freaky folk horror from writer-director David Lowery, a mysterious and sensationally beautiful film inspired by the 14th-century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written by an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer. Its creator’s identity remains a puzzle to the present day – though the film playfully hints at the question of authorship.
The story could not be more simple or more perplexing. A nobleman at the court of King Arthur is challenged by a stranger to a martial contest on Christmas Day. But the contest utterly negates or deconstructs the whole idea of manly valour, strength, courage and skill in battle. All that is required is submission.
In this film adaptation Dev Patel plays Gawain, who must go on an extraordinary quest across a stunningly rendered landscape. Like a haunted pilgrim in something by Bergman, Gawain is to come across strangers whose own intentions are sinister. Barry Keoghan is a malign scavenger, Erin Kellyman is the spirit of Saint Winifred, whose own decapitation made her a Christian martyr; and a certain lord and lady, played by Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander (an eerie doppelganger of the lowborn woman he has left behind), who startle him with what appears to be a taste for medieval swinging.
There is a sensational speech from the lady of the castle about the meaning of green: the colour of nature, the colour of remorseless amoral growth, the grass that will grow out of the grave and the moss that will cover the tomb, the endless process that will make a mockery of individual heroes and their paths of glory. And there is a stunning sequence in which Gawain is robbed and bound by the scavenger and his accomplices, left to die, to rot down to his bones but then to be born again, a rebirth that happens within the blink of an eye … or within the victim’s mind, or in metaphysical parallel with his ignominious roadside death.
Gawain is being tested. So are we. The visual brilliance of this film combines with shroomy toxicity and unexplainable moral grandeur. What a stunning experience.