On Christmas morning, Gawain (Dev Patel) is awakened in a brothel beside a woman named Essel (Alicia Vikander). He returns to Camelot and is scolded by his mother, Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), then attends a feast with his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris), who invites Gawain to sit at his right hand. Meanwhile, Morgan le Fay performs a ritual to summon the Green Knight (Ralph Iveson), who appears at court and challenges any knight to attack him with his green axe. Any knight who lands a blow must travel to the Green Chapel and receive an equal blow next Christmas. Gawain steps forward. He decapitates the Green Knight with Excalibur. The Knight rises, picks up his head, and rides away.
The next year, Gawain leaves on horseback, taking the Green Axe and a Green Girdle provided by his mother that will protect him from harm as long as he wears it. He crosses a battlefield full of dead warriors and meets a scavenging boy (Barry Keoghan) who directs him to a stream that leads to the Green Chapel. When the boy asks for payment, Gawain flips him a single coin. Later, the boy and two others ambush Gawain and steal the axe, the girdle, and the horse, and leave him tied up. He crawls to his sword and cuts his bonds. He pursues the thieves and at nightfall arrives at an abandoned cottage, where he falls asleep. He is awakened by Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who asks him to retrieve something from a nearby spring. He finds her skull there and unites it with her skeleton. The next morning, he finds the axe.
He befriends a fox who follows him. At a castle inhabited by Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert, he learns that the Green Chapel is nearby. The Lady of the Castle resembles Essel and she comes on to Gawain. Hautdesert agrees to trade the prize of his hunt for whatever Gawain receives at the castle. In the morning, the Lady gives him the green girdle, saying that she made it herself. Gawain accepts her advances. He leaves and finds the Lord in the forest, who gives him a kiss. He releases the fox, which he had caught. Gawain does not offer him the girdle, however.
When Gawain arrives at a stream where a boat is waiting, the fox says, “Your doom is at hand,” and begs him to turn back. But he takes the boat to the Chapel, where the Knight sits in hibernation. Gawain waits and the Knight awakes on Christmas morning. He swings the axe and Gawain flinches and is criticized by the Knight. A second time, Gawain crawls away. He imagines escaping to Camelot and becoming King after Arthur’s death. Essel bears his son, but Gawain abandons her, taking the child and marrying a noblewoman who looks like Winifred. His son comes of age and dies in battle. Gawain is reviled. His castle is besieged and his family abandons him. He removes the girdle and his head falls from his shoulders.
The reverie ended, Gawain kneels without the girdle and prepares to be beheaded. The Knight praises Gawain for his bravery, then drags his finger across Gawain’s throat with a smile and says, “Off with your head.” In a post-credits scene, a little girl picks up the crown and places it on her head, perhaps a princess born to Gawain and Essel. She plays in a tranquil, prosperous kingdom arising from Gawain’s honesty and integrity.
The film was written, edited, produced, and directed by David Lowery, based on the 14th Century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It received raves from critics for its cinematography, music, acting, production values, and writing. It was a box-office success. It was filmed at Ardmore Studios, Cahir Castle, County Tipperary, and Charleville Castle in Tullamore, County Offaly. The visual effects were by WETA Digital. It was released simultaneously in theaters and on Amazon because of Covid. The inspiration came from fantasy films of the Eighties, like Willow and Excalibur. It has been described as weird and haunting, beautiful and enigmatic.
Essel wears bells on her shroud because prostitutes in the Middle Ages were considered unclean like lepers. The unusual spiral tower is a real place called the Wonderful Barn in County Kildare, a folly built in 1743 to serve as a granary and to provide work for the poor. The idea of the movie came as David Lowery built a diorama of Willow (1988) in his backyard. He hired Dev Patel because he looked so regal in a fashion spread. The Covid delay gave the writers six extra months to polish the script. The five knightly virtues are friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Gawain fails at all of them before redeeming himself. The film is enigmatic and extraordinarily beautiful, and Dev Patel is haunting.