Film Review | The King: Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare did it better

Netflix’s attempt at weighty historical drama attempts to capitalise on Timothée Chalamet’s star power, but he hardly packs enough wattage to elegantly carry this dour and lumbering beast to the finish line

I really hope it’s not becoming a trend. Both last year’s Mary Queen of Scots (dir. Josie Rourke) and this year’s The King (dir. David Michôd) appear to be crafted under the assumption that merely slowing down the pace of a film to a deathly crawl and lowering its brightness to its lowest setting is all that it takes to lend these examples of historical ‘heritage cinema’ the right amount of gravitas and seriousness.

But as a young Bard from Stratford-Upon-Avon has aptly demonstrated centuries ago, no amount of scenery can trump compellingly written dialogue and characters. In fact, when crafting his tetralogy of plays of which Henry V is part — that play being the keystone text for Michod’s film — William Shakespeare had no stage design at his company’s disposal at all, relying on prologues and choruses to supply all the necessary visual and contextual information.

But while nobody is suggesting that we turn films back into talky plays, I’d argue that the talk — of which there is a lot here in any case — needs to be of a far better quality for this nearly two and half hour epic from Netflix to fully deserve our time. Co-penned by Michôd himself alongside a key member of the cast — Joel Edgerton, here taking on the iconic role of John Falstaff — ‘The King’ rolls together Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V to tell the story of how a dour, emotionally distant Henry Prince of Wales, or ‘Prince Hal’ (Timothée Chalamet) eventually becomes a dour, emotionally distant King of England — Henry V.

More keen on spending time in taverns with his friends and John Falstaff — who in this version has some military history — Hal is uninterested in his dying father’s (Ben Mendhelson) war efforts, and refuses to be nudged to taking the mantle of King upon his father’s passing. The honour is ultimately bestowed upon his younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), before it is revealed to be a poisoned chalice as both brothers now inherit their father’s ongoing feud with France, and his expansive, murderous ambitions towards the country.

Forced to take on the royal mantle and also lead the war effort after the French yield a provocation too many (escalating from insulting gifts to downright assassination attempts), Hal is put on the greased path to becoming Henry V, and strong-armed into going head to head with the eccentric French Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) and his army. While the Archbishop of Canterbury (Andrew Havill) watches impatiently for the war to start and William Gascoigne (Sean Harris) steps in to serve as Henry’s taciturn advisor, Henry drafts in his old drinking buddy Falstaff to provide some much-needed honest advice, hard-won from battles of yore.

What is certainly not hard-won is Timothée Chalamet’s stratospheric rise to fame following his starring role in the Luca Guadagnino’s much-feted Call Me By Your Name (2017). While the young actor’s boyish looks certainly run in tandem with the youthfulness that is Hal’s cross to bear as he attempts to rally the court on his side, his mumbly, one-note delivery and a botched British accent do him no favours in getting the audience to root for him. It’s just as well that Michôd then rings him with some true dramatic stalwarts, chief of them being an amusingly gruff Edgerton — more the haunted military stalwart than Shakespeare’s corpulent wastrel — and a criminally gone-too-soon Mendhelson.

Also underused is Robert Pattinson, riding high on a post-Twilight wave of dramatically meaty roles, which is set to reach a fresh crest as he takes on the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman sometime next year. Even if his take on Hal’s French counterpart is a borderline-xenophobic stereotype (the film has inspired French outrage), it is a fun one to savour, and injects a welcome tone of playful bitchiness in an otherwise dour attempt at crystalline heritage cinema.

That said, Game of Thrones fans may be momentarily amused by the visceral battle sequences — with muddy and metallic punching and scraping wedged in amidst the strategic artillery attacks — and it’s hard to deny that Top of the Lake and True Detective veteran cinematographer Adam Arkapaw succeeds in producing a sumptuous, immersive historical canvas, draping it in shadows consistent with the murky moral universe that our young king has been thrust into.  

The verdict

Impeccably shot and apparently keen to play the part of a fully mature and grown-up period drama, David Michôd’s film is sadly little more than a mud-soaked trudge; never mind the pretty scenery that rolls along in the rearview. The efforts of its game and decorated cast cannot make up for the underqualified flatness of its lead, and neither can its superficial nudges towards psychological sensitivity and gender equality mask the fact that this supposedly ‘modern’ portrayal still insists on sugar-coating a suspect military invasion with jingoistic overtones.

The King is currently streaming on Netflix