Film Review – The King
The King (2019) tells the story of King Henry V of England (Timothee Chalamet), the young ruler who was known for his military successes during the Hundred Years’ War. Perhaps his best known victory came at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, in which he led his troops against the French despite overwhelming odds. The battle was such a success that it crippled the French opposition and very nearly led to Henry conquering the country whole.
If this story sounds familiar, it may be because William Shakespeare wrote what might be the definitive account in his Henry IV and Henry V plays. This version – directed by David Michôd and co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton – translates much of the same elements but constructs the narrative with a modernist feel. This may not be a good thing. While the overall production looks good and the cast provides strong performances, seeing a darker, grittier version of this tale – without the eloquence of Shakespeare’s words – doesn’t provide much of a lasting impact.
One of the biggest issues with this iteration is trying to understand our protagonist’s motivation. When we first meet him, Henry (known as the Prince of Wales before his ascension) shows little interest for royal endeavors. He has a strained relationship with his father, King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) as well as his younger brother, Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). Henry – or “Hal” as he is nicknamed – would rather spend time drinking with his friend John Falstaff (Edgerton) and engaging in various after hour activities with women.
This is the classic case of the “Reluctant Hero’s Journey,” in which a character initially refuses to embark on a quest but eventually does so. The problem with this version of Henry V is that there is no transition between him being the young irresponsible boy, to the courageous warrior king, to the unbending ruler. In one scene, we watch as Hal tells his father that he has no interest in the crown, but only a few scenes later we watch as he upstages Thomas against a rebellious faction, even going so far as to challenge the rebel leader in a one-on-one fight to the death.
So what exactly happened here? How did Hal go from a reckless youth all the way to calling out an enemy to fight in single combat? How did he go from refusing his father’s throne to accepting it? The reasons are a little muddled. The narrative doesn’t specify what the exact cause for this change is. We don’t know if he really did want to upstage his brother, or if he had a hidden love for his father, or if he was doing it for the benefit of England – it all kind of mixes together in a foggy stew.
Chalamet was an interesting choice to play the central role. He fulfills the requirements of a “boy king” with his baby face and slender build, but Chalamet is such a charismatic and effective actor that he makes us believe that he would be able to lead an entire kingdom. He plays Hal as subdued, with a certain level of detachment that could be confused with disinterest in the hands of a lesser actor. This is a different approach to the character compared to other well-known depictions, such as Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh. Where Olivier seemed bigger than life, Chalamet has a down to earth, everyman quality that allows him to stand apart even when Hal’s motivations aren’t clearly drawn out.
The rest of the cast are all very good in their respective parts. Joel Edgerton gets his time to shine as Falstaff, the hard drinking warrior whose advice he imparts only when absolutely necessary. Sean Harris makes an impression as William Gascoigne. Gascoigne serves as a royal advisor to the throne, but with Harris’ signature voice he makes the character seem as though he has his own plans hidden up his sleeve. And Robert Pattinson continues his streak of interesting and diverse acting choices as The Dauphin, leader of the French army against Hal. Pattinson steals every scene that he is in, molding The Dauphin with eccentric qualities and hitting every piece of dialogue with the sneer of a royal jester. Pattinson’s scenes alone make the film worth a watch.
Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography bathes the screen with heavy contrasts between light and dark. There’s a washed out aesthetic that baths scenes in darkness – even daytime sequences are cloaked in shadow. The Battle of Agincourt is depicted as a dreary looking affair, where soldiers roll around in mud and blood. The visuals set the tone – the pageantry and color of past historical epics are replaced with grime and mud. I can appreciate how Michôd and his team attempted to do something different with this material, but I wonder if making the visuals gritty and dark will attract or repel those unaware of this story.
The King is an admirable, albeit forgettable, retelling of a well-known character. While it does have its qualities, the flimsy character development hindered me from investing emotionally into this portrayal. I’m glad I saw it, but I doubt anyone will rush back to see this come next St. Crispin’s Day.