“The King” is not your great-great-great-great grandfather’s Shakespeare. In fact, “The King” owes more to “Game of Thrones” than it does to the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. Director David Michod (“Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover”) wrote the script based on “Henry IV Part I,” “Henry IV Part II” and “Henry V” with frequent collaborator Joel Edgerton. While this is a strong historical epic, it never feels quite connected to its source material.
“The King” maps the trajectory of Prince Hal from his squalid days of drinking and carousing to his ultimate rise to power, while always keeping a wary eye out for the politics and betrayal that come with the crown.
Ben Mendelsohn, another alumni of Michod’s breakout film “Animal Kingdom,” opens the film as King Henry IV, a war-mongering titan who is wary of passing his crown off to Hal, played by Timothée Chalamet, instead giving it to his weaker, younger son Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman, in a role that feels repetitive of his turn as Tommen in “Game of Thrones”). The bulk of the film studies Hal’s growth and change from drunken fool to a King worthy of the mantle.
Hal initially finds himself at odds with his father’s festering desire for war, a stance that culminates with a one-on-one duel with the rebel Hotspur. It’s a fight done in an effort to save the lives of the men on either side of the conflict. A few French slights later though, and the newly minted King Henry V is as ready for war as anyone ever was. This abrupt shift never sits well with Hal’s first speeches against war and its atrocities. A few scenes toward the end of the film seemingly forgive all this, as if to say it was never Hal’s fault he brought this war on his people. Instead the blame lies with everyone else. The King never properly reflects on his choices, and thus the audience never gets to fully explore this potential moral ambiguity.
Early scenes are a bit of a mixed bag. While Mendelsohn is an absolute snake charmer, uttering each word with utter aplomb, Chalamet as Hal comes across as the most forlorn party animal. This acting approach serves him well later, but in these early scenes it simply highlights his tendency to lean on this one-note approach.
That said, Chalamet commands every scene he’s in with the eloquent confidence of an actor beyond his years, which gives me hope that his impending turn in “Dune” will be another terrific performance. Prior to this film, I was never sold on his ability, but in “The King” Chalamet quiets any doubters.
The real star of the movie is the only thing that really stands out as being from the Bard’s mind: the character of Falstaff, played by Joel Edgerton with pure scene-chewing joy. I’ve always enjoyed watching Edgerton on screen, and his turn as Falstaff only confirms my suspicions that he is easily one of the most underrated actors today. He nimbly shifts from biting humor to moments of unrelenting regret and pain.
The rest of the film hosts a cavalcade of stars, including Sean Harris, Robert Pattinson and Lily-Rose Depp. Harris’s slow, patient delivery serves him well as an adviser whispering dangerous thoughts into the King’s ear. Even so, he tends to fade into the background at times despite a few highlight reel moments. The drab clothing of the piece also lends to this, as everyone seems to have the same tailor, making it hard to tell anyone apart.
Pattinson as The Dauphin, on the other hand, is a wonderful villain, taunting the king with a deliciously venomous French accent. You also know he’s a great villain because you eagerly await his inevitable comeuppance. Death can’t come soon enough for this blond haired rat.
Behind the camera, the film opens with a beautiful long take which is ultimately a harbinger of some of the incredibly haunting cinematography by Adam Arkapaw that dominates the movie. Arkapaw, who worked with Michod before on “Animal Kingdom,” paints detailed images that quietly reflect the Renaissance artwork of the film’s historical time period. Additionally, candles and natural light suggest a not-so-subtle influence from movies like “Barry Lyndon.” Michod himself handles the subject matter with a trademark languid pace and a camera that seems content to observe rather than interfere, almost like an unseen servant watching over the King.
As stated earlier, this film strays pretty far from its source material and, while I won’t claim to be Shakespeare expert, I was looking forward to the impeccably written Saint Crispin’s Day speech – a speech that never comes. They try and stave off this heartbreak with a speech of their own but it mostly falls flat, no matter how much Chalamet yells. “The King” does a lot of posturing like this and, while it might claim to be ripped from Shakespeare’s classic plays, it never quite measures up.
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Featured image credit: Netflix
Born with a VHS in his hand (“Care Bears” probably) Kyle has always loved movies. His interests range from pretentious art-house films like “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” to Jean-Claude Van Damme classics like “Double Impact.” When he isn’t writing he’s enjoying podcasts, craft beers and spending time with his beautiful wife. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.