There’s been a lot of good Shakespearean adaptations, a lot of bad ones, and quite a few that fall somewhere in the middle, and The King stands out as one that interestingly (and perhaps thankfully) isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The themes of war and imperialism are as old as well, Shakespeare, and while The King is a mostly streamlined and simplified version of three of the Bard’s most iconic works, it doesn’t lose the tragic sort of coming of age story at its heart. Even if it doesn’t have the complexity, it has the feel of an epic; breathless action and terrific sets make the material feel fresh again and gives the chance for a star like Timothee Chalamet to try his hand as a notorious tragic figure.
Director David Michod has built a career on being unapologetic; his big break The Rover is a relentlessly bleak take on the post-apocalyptic thriller and War Machine is an equally uproarious and angry satire of post-9/11 militarism, and while he could be criticized for the relative simplicity of his arguments, here Michod has the strength of the greatest writer in history behind him. This gives him the chance to do what he does best, which is the grim and grueling framing of a story around a central traumatic event. Everything in The King centers around a fateful battle between the English and French forces, and by stripping down the material to its bare bones Michod is able to go in depth on the series of decisions that Henry V must make that leads to, envelops, and follows the epic confrontation.
Henry Prince of Wales (Timothee Chalamet) is the black sheep of his family, a drunk and rash prince who’s openly defiant of his father King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn). When Henry assumes the throne he’s determined to avoid his father’s warlike ways, but on the counsel of his advisor Sir William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), Henry must consider the possibility of war after a botched assassination attempt. Enlisting the aid of his friend Falstaff (Joel Edgerton), Henry must face off against the haughty French Prince the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson).
While there’s not quite enough time to look at what Henry is like before the royal responsibilities are thrust upon him, it’s evident from his brief conversations that he has with his father what the difference between the two is. Henry V, at his heart, is not a killer, and is willing to go to almost foolish lengths to avoid bloodshed. The tragedy of the film, of course, is that he’s forced to wage a war in which ulterior players control the political mechanics. The mix of removed wisdom and political ignorance is what makes Henry V so fascinating, and the film is clear to emphasize how Henry is both a leader and young man whose obvious skills are taken advantage of.
This is a film of great scale, with actors that feel comfortable in their vast environments and are clearly committing to the physicality. The film’s climactic battle isn’t necessarily a super complex one (Henry’s plan is fairly simple), but it connects clearly to the struggles that Henry faces as a ruler. The idea of forcing others to fight or die on his behalf is horrible to him, but there is a rage he feels towards an enemy who has no regard for human life.
Chalamet has emerged as one of the best young actors of his generation, and he’s completely convincing in his transition from drunken rebel to warrior king. It’s clear that every decision Henry makes is considered, and while his intelligence in how to broker deals and float threats towards others are convincing, it’s never lost that Henry’s willingness to adhere to moral codes makes him vulnerable. Even with a relatively diminutive stature, Chalamet is convincing with his physicality and is able to give epic speeches and engage in grimy brawls with the appropriate amount of passion.
If there’s one performance that sticks out like a sore thumb its Robert Pattinson’s as The Dauphin; while the eccentric arrogance of the character is a well-intended counter to the reserved candor of Henry, Pattinson’s leader feels vapid with a French accent plucked straight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Harris and Edgerton, however, are both excellent, and serve as two great role models for Henry, with Harris representing his father’s political shrewdness and Edgerton as a reminder of his less ambitious roots.
This is a long film, but it doesn’t feel particularly drawn out, and I appreciate the patience that Michod takes to set up the mechanics behind each decision. While it’s decidedly less bloody than one might anticipate, the action sequences are gritty and personal, and I like the profound emptiness that hides behind some of the visuals of the royal palace. There’s nuance that’s lost for sure, but this isn’t a Spark Notes version of Shakespeare, as it still retains the moral ambiguity of meaningless victories and empty promises. Grade: B+