American director David Lowery unleashes the sorcery of cinema on his version of an Arthurian legend about honour and faith. Loosely based on a fourteenth-century poem about King Arthur and his nephew Gawain, The Green Knight is filled with foreboding, fantasy and fog – clouds and clouds of fog.

The period drama, which is out in cinemas, is tethered by an excellent central performance by Dev Patel. Self-consciously enigmatic and ponderous, The Green Knight is disinterested in character studies or even the minimum exposition needed to explain on the goings-on. Lowery deploys minimal special effects and old-fashioned camera tricks to create a spectacle that endures after the fog finally lifts.

On Christmas Day, Gawain (Patel) accepts a challenge from the Green Knight, a mysterious being who is half human and half tree. In return for being beheaded by Gawain, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) will wait for a full year and claim Gawain’s head.

Gaiwan’s journey towards certain doom takes him through lands ravaged by war and enchanted forests. He literally loses bits of himself along the way – lucky charms given to him by his sorceress mother (Sarita Choudhury), his horse (which is replaced by a fox), his virtue and belief.

Alicia Vikander in The Green Knight (2021). Courtesy A24 Films.

David Lowery, who has previously directed the wildly different fantasy adventure Pete’s Dragon and the crime drama The Old Man & the Gun, puts every key filmmaking department to work for his latest project. Packed with incantations and half-murmured dialogue, richly tense music (by Daniel Hart) and vivid cinematography (by Andrew Droz Palermo), the film is never lacking in mood or momentousness.

Palermo’s night-time lighting – a bulk of the narrative plays out indoors or after daylight – and generous use of colour filters create a series of stunning tableaux. Daniel Hart’s choral score cranks up the feeling of strangeness that pervades every frame of the 130-minute movie.

The stylised acting matches the atmospherics. Sean Harris plays the sepulchral king who sends Gawain on a potentially life-threatening mission. Alicia Vikander plays both Gawain’s lover and a noblewoman who gives an ecological spin to the origins of the Green Knight.

The only straight-arrow performance is by Dev Patel. Equal parts foolhardy and feckless, Patel’s Gawain adds several layers during his bizarre journey. The movie too gains otherworldly qualities as it proceeds. There’s ultimately less than meets the eye, but whatever is on view is always ravishing to look at.

The Green Knight (2021).