“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a 14th-century epic poem written in Middle English. Gawain is one of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. The Green Knight, a mysterious figure who appears unannounced on Christmas Day, declares that anyone can strike him with his ax, so long as the challenger lets himself be struck by the Green Knight a year and a day later, at the Green Chapel. Accepting the challenge, Gawain beheads him — only to have the Green Knight put his head back on and say, in effect, your turn next year, buddy.
It’s a potent narrative package: chivalry, bloody violence, the supernatural. That said, it’s not your everyday movie material. David Lowery, the writer-director of “The Green Knight,” has an impressive and impressively varied filmography: “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), “Pete’s Dragon” (2016), “A Ghost Story” (2017), “The Old Man and the Gun” (2018). Is it varied enough, though, to accommodate something so unusual?
Begin with the title. “The Green Knight” puts forward the antagonist, who’s not even human, rather than the hero. The few times we hear the knight speak, he sounds a bit like Vin Diesel. Actually, he’s played by a heavily made up Ralph Ineson. But Diesel would be the sort of counter-intuitive casting Lowery can be given to here. Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) is Gawain. As with Patel’s playing the title role in Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of “David Copperfield” (2020), this is consciously subversive casting: a reimagining of English literature as more than just “English.”
The casting of Sean Harris as King Arthur may be even more destabilizing. Harris is probably best known as the extravagantly dangerous Solomon Lane in the two most recent “Mission: Impossible” movies. He brings that sense of danger with him. Even at his most benign and kingly, this Arthur carries a subtle sense of menace.
Or there’s the double casting of Alicia Vikander. She’s Essel, Gawain’s squire/girlfriend (delineating social roles isn’t of much interest to Lowery). She’s also The Lady, a mysterious noblewoman he meets just before arriving at the Green Chapel. Essel has a punky haircut that makes her look like a distant brunette forebear of Jean Seberg, in “Breathless.” What makes this worth noting is that The Lady’s High Middle Ages hairdo — and it’s quite high — couldn’t be more different.
The Lady isn’t the only character whose name isn’t a name. Arthur is listed in the credits as King. Other characters include Magician, Mother, Queen, and The Lord (Joel Edgerton), who is, sensibly enough, The Lady’s husband. Scavenger is a brigand Gawain encounters on his journey. Barry Keoghan’s memorably off-putting performance makes him the most vivid character in the movie.
These aren’t so much characters as archetypes. Archetypes work fine on the page, print being itself an abstracting of reality. The camera, with its hunger for specificity and endless fascination with the human face, refuses to accept archetypes and inevitably individualizes them. It’s the sheer, vexed human-ness of Patel’s face, the way he can look daunted yet indomitable at the same time, that makes him effective as Gawain. It doesn’t hurt that the character has an actual name. Even then, the film isn’t about him, per se. It’s about what he does — or is supposed to do (an important distinction).
This is part of a larger stylization, an attempt to conjure up a world in which nothing is more real than magic. “My lady, are you real or a spirit?” Gawain asks a woman he meets. “What is the difference?” she replies.
Exactingly wrought, the film has a gunmetal palette of considerable, if unduly oppressive, beauty. Interiors are dark, as one might expect of the Dark Ages (even if various architectural details belong to the period of the poem’s writing). But the crepuscular look extends to daytime exteriors, with their watery, reduced light. When the weather isn’t misty it’s cloudy. When it isn’t cloudy it’s misty. This isn’t just British, wintry light. It’s world-outside-of-time light.
The movie is measured to the point of ponderousness. “Game of Thrones Goes to Camelot” this is not. Everything feels as weighty as the Green Knight’s footsteps sound. Adding to the weightiness are chapter titles, written in medieval cursive. Including them is a mistake. They look slightly silly. Worse, they call attention to how episodic “The Green Knight” is. One chapter is called “. . . an Interlude.” Most of the movie feels like an interlude. Pacing, velocity, and flow don’t interest Lowery. He knows the effects he wants and, skilled as he is, knows how to get them. But are they worth getting? A film that’s consciously laborious is still laborious. In a world where nothing is more real than magic, its absence is sorely felt.
THE GREEN KNIGHT
Written and directed by David Lowery. Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Barry Keoghan. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 125 minutes. R (violence, sexuality, nudity).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.