The King is a film full of surprises: It’s a saga that strays both from history and from Shakespeare in its tale of power and betrayal; it brilliantly casts Timothée Chalamet against type to portray a young man who has weighty responsibilities suddenly thrust upon him; it’s a piece of smart and taut storytelling from David Michôd, whose following up his previous film War Machine, which was neither of those things. It’s a historical piece featuring pummeling scenes of mud-and-blood combat, epic, nearly monochrome widescreen images, brought together by a beautifully broody Nicholas Britell score. It’s a film that defies expectations and offers both the thrills of battle and thoughtful critiques to speak.
Structurally, this is a story you know from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part II” and “Henry V” (or Chimes at Midnight or My Own Private Idaho). (It’s a plainspoken but unfailingly intelligent adaptation.) War — what is it good for? The King opens in the early 15th century, England is warring with rebellious factions in Wales and Scotland, and in the first image of the film, all we see is a corpse-strewn field of battle. Michôd’s movie continually poses that aforementioned question as the film charts the reluctant rise of Henry V (a superb Chalamet). The prince starts the film a boozing womanizer, often staying away from his royal connections, seeing that he’s not likely to ascend to the throne since he and his father, Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), have a mutual antipathy. But when Henry V is unexpectedly crowned the new King of England, the malicious whispers and malign intent of his father’s advisers is overwhelming. He enlists a trusted friend and hardened military man John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) to help him through his early days of rule.
Early on in the film, Michôd accentuates Chalamet’s thin physicality to depict him as someone who has no business assuming the throne; he’s frequently seen shirtless, with is slenderness making him not imposing in the slightest. But as the film proceeds, Chalamet’s Henry does acquire stature and gravitas (even with his period-accurate bowl haircut), and by the time his is leading into battle the actor has made us believe in this neglected young man’s transformation. And though it’s a metamorphosis that changes from its source material, the screenplay, written by Michôd and Edgerton, maintains fidelity through Shakespeare’s themes, keeping the dialogue in rough and playful iambic pentameter, peppering it with enough anachronistic profanity to keep it feeling fresh and surprising without ever undermining the cogency of the world.
While his script is solid, Edgerton, also, has never been looser or more relaxed on-screen, delivering a soulful gruffness through each of his scenes. And coming from the opposing side is a hilarious Robert Pattinson, who plays the young, arrogant Dauphin of France like a taunty, slimy lizard — he wholeheartedly steals every scene he’s in. Between Chalamet’s appropriate seriousness as a monarch under fire and the various conspiracies and agendas among the King’s counselors, both Edgerton and Pattinson provide necessary comic relief, even though both of their characters are capable of battle savagery. The film also alters Falstaff’s fate in a way that delivers a resonance to the plotting overall, while also a great deal of that has to do with Edgerton’s performance and his chemistry with Chalamet.
Visually The King creates a gritty but oddly beautiful imagining of 15th Century England, with its moody landscapes brought to life by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. From the deep shadowplay in taverns to an enthralling sequence in which catapults hurl fireballs at a French castle for days, Arkapaw and Michôd’s dramatic aesthetic is consistent throughout, but it peaks at the Battle at Agincourt, a rousing sequence of mud and mayhem, with Chalamet’s Henry drowning and hacking his way through muck (and plenty of French Soldiers) with it all playing out in one continuous shot. Though staged at an epic scope, the film balances it’s blood and guts with a post-war reckoning for Henry who, as a husband impending marriage to French Princess Cathrine (Lily-Rose Depp), is forced to face hard questions about who benefits from slaughter and who gets left to die.
The King won’t likely supplant Shakespeare’s version of these events, nor the screen adaptations of it from Welles and Van Sant. But The King also finds an interesting place of its own — It doesn’t derive it’s richness from a nonstop narrative drive or mega-budget production values; it comes from its sense of concentration and its unique cinematic rhythms. The King is a movie that draws you in slowly and patiently, with a gravity that makes itself felt in the deliberation of its camera movement and the magnetic gaze of its star. Together equally demanding and ultimately earning your surrender both in the battlefield and in the royal chambers. Bringing thoughtful, weighty critiques of imperialism and male hegemony, The King delivers with strong performances, philosophical heft and majestic, visual command.