The King review: A brilliantly performed historical drama
James R | On 01, Nov 2019
Director: David Michôd
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, Robert Pattinson
Watch The King online in the UK: Netflix UK
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” Anyone expecting to hear that line in The King, Netflix’s new film ostensibly based on Shakespeare’s trio of Henry plays, should adjust their expectations now: this rethinking of the tale of young Henry V and his coming-of-reign to win in battle over France has less Shakespeare in it than an episode of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.
The two-hour epic not only drops the Bard’s dialogue altogether but also changes plot details – an approach that director David Michôd, who co-wrote the script with Joel Edgerton, admits is part historical research and part making stuff up. Characters you would expect to depart in Henry IV Part 2 continue into Henry V, while others who barely figure at all are beefed up considerably to craft a very different narrative arc.
If that sounds like sacrilege, then you’ll be frustrated by this two-hour trudge through mud and blood – it compares poorly, in that sense, with the BBC’s recent Hollow Crown cycle, which tackled the Henriad head-on with poetry and style. But the truth is this doing-its-own-thing period piece is closer to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood than the author of Richard III. And when confronted on that level, The King’s revisionist medieval drama is an entertainingly grubby piece of history.
The film’s strengths mainly lie in its acting, with Timothée Chalamet perfectly cast in the lead role. Chalamet is ideal as young Hal, a drinking, womanising embarrassment to his family who is only summoned by the king to be told that he definitely won’t be inheriting the throne. But events conspire to leave the kingdom with no other option, and so Henry reluctantly dons the crown.
Reluctance is something Chalamet can do very well, and he brings a real, visible vulnerability to Henry V – a part previously played by Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston. Chalamet’s Henry wants peace not war, putting him at odds with his father (a brief but entertaining Ben Mendelsohn), not to mention his brother and the fiery upstart Hotspur (a lively turn from Tom Glynn-Carney, who will soon impress just as much in Irish drama Rialto).
Over the course of the two hours, we see that pacifism and fragility harden into something more resilient, as Hal veers from idealised detachment to anger and retribution, with the hope that he’ll settle somewhere in the middle. Chalamet portrays this brilliantly – and looks good in a suit of armour to boot – giving the sense that Henry’s never quite sure until the final moments whether he’s doing the right thing.
Without Chalamet in the role, that depth might be lost by the script, which spends too much time unsubtly dwelling on corruption and chucking in violence to explore Henry’s inner conflicts properly. Instead, more weight is given to Falstaff, played by Joel Edgerton with hearty aplomb. Sporting a convincing accent, the chameleonic actor disappears into Henry’s bearded companion, played less as a fool and more as a witty but wise veteran of war, a man who knows his way around the battlefield – and that he doesn’t want to go that way again. A key scene in which he argues for one particular battle strategy based primarily on the feeling in his knee bone is one of the movie’s best moments. They’re joined by an impeccable Sean Harris as valued adviser Wiliam Gascgoine, who balances kindly wisdom with political savvy – a union built on false pretences, he warns Henry, won’t last long.
All of them are upstaged, though, by Robert Pattinson, who steals the show as The Dauphin. Swaggering in almost out of an entirely different movie, he’s hysterically over-the-top as the petulant French prince, pausing only to brush his blonde hair out of his face. It’s initially almost jarring, but his cameo is one that gives a boost of momentum when it’s needed, highlights the film’s themes of arrogance and assumed authority, and makes the climactic showdown between the two figures all the more satisfying.
From the off, David Michôd dives into the dirty of England’s green and pleasant land to show us battle from the ground up – an early brawl between Henry and an opponent is less noble warfare and more schoolyard punch-up, while the opening shot beautifully frames a blood-red sun against a field of slain soldiers. That sets the tone for Agincourt’s grimy, gripping stand-off in the final act, part of which Michôd thrillingly captures in one long take.
The set pieces may lack the jaw-dropping pinache of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, but the contrast between all this raw, physical heft and Chalamet’s gentle presence is where The King really works – a contrast drummed up by Nicholas Britell’s brooding, atmospheric score. And so, when the battle is over, when the breach has been untoed, there’s none of the patriotic bombast usually associated with Henry V; this is a sobre war that takes a very human toll. (Also telling is the way the film makes room for Henry to quietly heed the smart advise of the Queen of Denmark and French princess Catherine, who both know more about the way the world works than a court of loud men.)
When it comes to war speeches to rally the troops, you wish The King left it to Bill, the original ruler of this stuff. But with a cast that makes up for an occasionally uneven script, the result is far from Shakespeare, yet far from dull.
The King is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.