Sitting at the confluence [not necessarily the crossroads] of old and new, pagan and Christian, the immediate and literal alongside the cerebral and mystical, David Lowery’s spin on Arthurian legend may well be a massacre of source material and a justified interpretation, all at once. It was in this divergence of fact and fiction where the ears perked up for me upon the customary post-viewing search. I went in completely blind—which, as always, was a boon for full immersion—helped mostly by my scant knowledge of British monarchy succession protocol proving decidedly incidental. A background going as far back as the incumbent’s accession and maybe one King George. And quintessentially British as to be foundational, on learning of his fictional origin, and the recency of female heirs’ eligibility for rule, it bathed the Aurthurian figure in the requisite mystique that lore and collective identities depend on in founding myths. But as evidenced by the title, this fabricated, composite figure assumes a backseat some distance behind his fabled round table as early as the third scene proper. All this is testament to the robust history of the mythical ruler that the supporting cast of characters hovering near his orbit are afforded a similar treatment and exposure (they named a movie after his sword, in one adaptation). Though it provides lessons equally heed-worthy for adults and juveniles alike, matching the original poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, stride for stride was always going to be a tall order.

The proceedings are kicked into gear early, loading up on the intrigue with a double-move opening salvo that introduces the myth of the titular Green Knight following a preamble of his human challenger, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel). One Christmas morning, Gawain is summoned to Camelot as the King (Sean Harris) and his enclave of trusted knights convene. Despite the gulf in stature between them, and a consanguine bond, Gawain is sat at long last alongside those of consequence. The Green Knight, a hulking, burly, heavy-stomping colossus, next, muscles his way in on horseback, challenging those in attendance for the longest duel conceived. Let he who thinks himself brave enough to strike a blow against him allow the same in reciprocation one year from now at the Green Chapel, a six-days’ distance to the north. Emboldened by the monarch’s belated profession of avuncular guilt over lost time—an occasion Gawain arrives late to, no less—and equally disillusioned by the minuscule prospects of a relationship with his prostitute-girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) Gawain answers the call when no before any battle-hardened mortal in attendance does, and decapitates the intruder using Excalibur; King Arthur’s legendary sword. His reward? The Green Knight’s unwieldy Greataxe as a trophy and a growing legend in the yearlong run-up to a destiny unbeknownst to all.

With the burden of such discovery now resting on shoulders too weary for combat, and a spirit too apathetic to desert puerile ways, his journey resembles tales of growing pains told before and since. Be they the rite of passage into manhood, heroism or immortality as seen in the labors of Heracles, or the initiations into such strata as with Macbeth, the Green Knight’s myth is a continuation of familiar morality tales centered around valor, cowardice and transitioning. Though, it is also the transactional model of debt and reward, and transformative outcome following either a successful or unsuccessful negotiation of that path, where the fable draws its fame. In terms of appeal, the story’s quest is not wanting, and the imposition of meeting adversity is unequivocally stated, and Patel is more than up for the task of portraying Gawain’s hesitance, though only that far. Because, aside from those fears, Patel’s interpretation of an aspiring knight is also one of a dull and disinterested dimwit. The real crime here is Patel’s believability as a wannabe knight instead of any earnest aspirations for the integrity of a true knight. It’s all about the song and dance, and he appearance of being such without the burden of absorbing levied costs. The dog and pony show was planned and staged on his behalf, to be performed in his honor, awaiting his coda. Even failure (as revealed in a hypothetical scenario of paying the piper) must, then, be deliberate and self-inflicted if the game is rigged and fates and outcomes are engineered beforehand.

As he’s banished to meet his fate, he’s condemned to the very same vagrancy that nearly brings early ruin to his doorstep. For instance, when he happens on a vandal scavenging a scorched battlefield, he asks for a shortcut, which sends him right into a wooded ambush. When he assists a reclusive women retrieve something from a lake, he presumes she was propositioning herself as a reward for helping her. Subsequent encounters would provide a trap of some kind, presented as evolving tests of mettle, character and typical knightly comportment, all compromised, in Gawain’s case, from a lifetime idled away wantonly against the warm bosom of the town whore (Vikander in a double role). Though a workable crack at a cross-media retelling of a famous legend, it is not without its flaws. Incessant moments of Gawain’s trepidations bog down the film’s rhythm. Stellar visuals that vacillate between high contrast German expressionist cinematography and scenic vistas as well as Patel’s convincing turn do little to stomp out creeping boredom. Convincing only insofar as Gawain’s hesitation goes, for it was Vikander’s double shift as Harlot and Lady stealing the show. Momentary spurts of brilliance are otherwise reserved to, yet again, characters occupying the periphery, and these bits bookend drawn-out lulls in the middle. And for lengths, Gawain exhibits this burden more as an inconvenience than a hurdle on his path for attaining morality—and immortality, which he earns regardless of merit in this depiction. How, then, can what seemed like his cross to bear all along become a badge of pride?

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