The King, 2019.
Directed by David Michôd.
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Tom Glynn-Carney, Lily-Rose Depp, Thomasin McKenzie, Andrew Havill, Edward Ashley and Tara Fitzgerald.
Hal, wayward prince and heir to the English throne, is crowned King Henry V after his tyrannical father dies. Now the young king must navigate palace politics, the war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life.
One of the higher profile films showing at the festival this year, The King boasts epic source material, courtesy of Shakespeare and the life of Henry V, and a stellar cast. Netflix has nabbed the distribution rights, ensuring a theatrical release of a few weeks before streaming commences in November. They’re clearly readying the film for awards season contention. Whether it’s worthy of Oscars is debatable, but it’s certainly worthy of praise.
There’s been quite a clamour around the casting of one of Hollywood’s brightest new stars, Timothée Chalamet, in the titular role. And Chalamet is here to show you his 2017 Best Actor Academy Award nomination for Call Me by Your Name is anything but fluke. As Hal (then Henry), he demands your attention with his focus, although it appears effortless. His dissolute, drunken Hal may not be quite 100% convincing, most likely due to Shakespeare’s shaping of the role clashing slightly with Chalamet’s younger, more delicate casting. He’s not a natural “lad”, as it were. However, the ‘Hal’ phase is mainly condensed into confrontations with his father, King Henry IV (chameleon Ben Mendelsohn), and scenes where he’s hanging hard in bed the morning after, so it’s kind of more of a teenager, existential crisis kind of riotous youth.
When he assumes the mantle as Henry V however, Chalamet truly comes into his own. It’s quite a large and awkwardly sudden leap for one so disinterested in the monarchy to immediately dedicate himself to his responsibilities, but Chalamet shines as the young king starting to get his shit together. Taking regal to a whole new level, this is Chalamet cast as a man rather than a boy – and it suits him. His knack for capturing the inner life of someone thrust into rulership and trying to find their footsteps (because of course we’d all know) is uncanny; duty and ambition simmer in his eyes.
Joel Edgerton is an unusual choice for Falstaff, but likely explained by his screenwriting and producing credits. Nevertheless, he turns in a commendable performance, complete with a beer belly and a (pretty convincing) gruff Northern accent. A close friend from Hal’s drinking days, Falstaff eventually joins the Henry’s court and agrees to assist with the campaign against France, allowing for another juicy bit of character growth. It’s a shame that Tara Fitzgerald, cast as Hooper, a clear alternate to Shakespeare’s brash Mistress Quickly, a sparring partner for Falstaff, doesn’t get much screen time. With what she has though, she turns in a lively but tone-appropriate performance; The King is less about the bawdiness of theatre productions, and more about bringing realism to these characters.
Having said this, Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin lightens the mood rather with his French ‘panto villain’ interpretation. One of the best bits is this Englishman cast as a Frenchman, insisting on speaking English because it is “ugly” with the King of England… played by a native French speaker. There’s been some fixation on Pattinson’s accent, which is not at all bad and somewhat beside the point – he’s made a bold choice with his characterisation (somewhere in line with Monty Python) and it absolutely works. It gives the film’s hero a mocking, cocky wannabe to swipe aside. There’s also a plum role for the inscrutable Sean Harris as advisor William Gascoigne, guiding Henry to get to grips with ruling while he determines the sort of king he wants to be.
Despite its inspiration, don’t expect Shakespeare from The King – there’s even a wry nod to this when Henry proclaims, “You’re expecting a speech” on the battlefield at Agincourt. The dialogue has been wound down from elevated poetry and, on the whole, rings true without sounding wooden. However, because the Henriad’s four plays are the source for The King, there’s a lot to cram in. The Harry Hotspur (an impressive Tom Glynn-Carney) rebellion storyline provides an energetic kick-off for the film, before a new one with Henry’s younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) supplanting him on the throne is introduced. While all of this provides an engaging backstory, it does challenge the pace and the focus of the film slightly. Some knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and this period of English history certainly provides helpful – and fun – context. Lily-Rose Depp also gets her moment as the self-assured Catherine of Valois, whose part is expanded and allows for her to deliver quite a clever twist at the film’s climax. It may not be kosher as far as Shakespeare goes, but it could be as far as history is concerned…
The glorious soundtrack of The King, courtesy of Nicholas Britell, must be mentioned. It’s so in keeping with the tone and period of the film that it blends in beautifully before finally demanding your attention. This same appropriate sort of legitimacy is favoured in design too, with plenty of mud and a far less ornate and flashy king’s court, befitting of the early fifteenth century.
The King is not trying to be a radical re-telling of history, or to break the mould in any way: It hits you with the understated “authenticity” popular in historical films, an excellent cast, and it focuses on telling a solid and engaging story that pulls you along – and over a couple of bumps in the road. History fans and Shakespeare buffs will be particularly intrigued, but it’s gripping enough for anyone interested in a good story. For the Battle of Agincourt’s sake, it’s worth giving it a shot on the big screen. And then prepare to concede to the Chalamaniacs…
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★