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'The Green Knight' Fulfills A Quest To Find New Magic In An Old Legend

Justin Chang says with this boldly inventive adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an anonymously written but enduring 14th-century poem, the writer-director David Lowery has taken a young man's journey of self-discovery and fashioned it into a gorgeous and moving work of art.

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Other segments from the episode on July 29, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 29, 2021: Interview with Craig Timberg; Review of film 'The Green Knight.'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic, Justin Chang, says that "The Green Knight," which stars Dev Patel as a young adventurer from King Arthur's court, is one of the most magical movies he's seen so far this year. It's the latest film from David Lowery, the writer and director of the indie dramas "A Ghost Story" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." It opens Friday in theaters nationwide. Here's Justin's review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: As powerful a grip as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table still exert on our imaginations, there haven't been enough great or even good movies made about them. There have been some, of course. I'm fond of the lush Wagnerian grandeur of John Boorman's "Excalibur." And we'll always love "Monty Python And The Holy Grail." But they're more the exception than the rule. So I mean it as high praise when I say that I've never seen an Arthurian sword-and-sorcery epic quite like "The Green Knight." With this boldly inventive adaptation of "Sir Gawain And The Green Knight," an anonymously written but enduring 14th century poem, the writer-director David Lowery has taken a young man's journey of self-discovery and fashioned it into a gorgeous and moving work of art.

That young man is Gawain, played by a superb Dev Patel, who slips into these medieval trappings as effortlessly as he did the Dickensian world of last year's "The Personal History Of David Copperfield." His character is a reckless youth, a kind of Middle Ages slacker whom we first meet in a brothel with his lover, Essel, played by Alicia Vikander. In this scene, she awakens him with a bucket of cold water and reminds him that it's Christmas morning. As they get dressed, we learn a little about Gawain and his lazy aspirations to knighthood.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREEN KNIGHT")

ALICIA VIKANDER: (As Essel) Christ is born.

DEV PATEL: (As Gawain) Christ is born, indeed. Where are you going?

VIKANDER: (As Essel) To church.

PATEL: (As Gawain) Why? My boot. Hello, Agnes (ph). Where are my boots?

VIKANDER: (As Essel) You a knight yet?

PATEL: (As Gawain) What?

VIKANDER: (As Essel) You a knight yet?

PATEL: (As Gawain) Not yet. I've got time. I've got lots of time.

CHANG: Later that day, Gawain will attend a Christmas celebration hosted by his uncle, King Arthur, played with a benevolent smile by Sean Harris. The festivities are interrupted by the Green Knight, a mysterious half-man, half-tree figure on horseback. He suggests a friendly Christmas game, inviting anyone present to strike him down on the condition that they must reunite a year later so that the blow can be returned. The impetuous Gawain accepts the challenge and decapitates the Green Knight with a sword. But the Green Knight gets up calmly, retrieves his head and leaves, pausing to remind Gawain that they will meet again in one year.

All this is drawn from the original story, with a few intriguing tweaks. In Lowery's retelling, Gawain is the son of King Arthur's sister, the scheming enchantress Morgan le Fay, played here by a quietly imposing Sarita Choudhury. She gives Gawain a magical green sash for protection as he sets out the following year to meet his fate. Is he doomed to lose his head, or will he, like the Green Knight, somehow survive the encounter?

That's just one of many questions looming over Gawain's long and episodic journey, during which he'll meet many characters who may help or hinder him. Erin Kellyman plays Saint Wainifred, a ghostly maiden who asks him for a favor. Joel Edgerton turns up as a hospitable lord whose castle is a maze of strange secrets. But for the most part, Gawain travels alone with only a friendly fox to keep him company. While his quest unfolds at a leisurely pace, it never plods or drags. I felt hypnotized in my seat. Lowery and his cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palermo, summon up one astonishing image after another as they follow Gawain over misty mountains and through mossy forests. And every step, our hero tries to follow a knight's code of chivalry, performing acts of kindness and resisting the many temptations that present themselves.

Like the original poem, the movie is open to more than one interpretation. You don't need to be a theologian to spot the Christian overtones in the story in which the Green Knight looms as a kind of Christ figure and Gawain is his lowly disciple. Then again, you could also see the Green Knight as a pagan creation, an avatar of the natural world with which humanity will always find itself in conflict. These tensions between Pagan and Christian belief are perfectly expressed in Patel's performance, which is both a piercing study and moral anguish and a lusty, charismatic star turn.

Lowery's film may be a meditation on good and evil, but it also invites us to contemplate the erotic allure of its leading man. The intensity of the spiritual inquiry "In The Green Knight" reminded me of quite a few non-Arthurian classics like Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" and Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation Of Christ." It's also reminded of Lowery's own films, like the Disney remake "Pete's Dragon" and "A Ghost Story," which put their own offbeat spin on familiar myths and archetypes. "The Green Knight" is another kind of ghost story full of eerie visions and strange spirits. It leaves you feeling assured that the old legends, and the movies they inspire, are still capable of conjuring their share of magic.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Jad Abumrad, the creator of the public radio series Radiolab, or Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the script the Oscar-winning film "Moonlight" was adapted from and created the series "David Makes Man," which is in its second season, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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