Netflix continues its expansion into original films, amidst an admittedly strong fall schedule, with the release of The King. David Michôd writes and directs his second film for the streaming service after 2017’s War Machine starring Brad Pitt, but this time reuniting with his longtime writing partner, actor/writer/director Joel Edgerton. And while that reunion proves to increase the quality of Michôd’s work, it does not make The King a remarkable achievement.
Edgerton and Michôd have called their screenplay a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, so loose in fact that Shakespeare is not even included in the credits. And yet the script presents language that alternates between historically accurate, akin to the language of Shakespeare, and being more modern, to help the audience understand better what is happening throughout the film. This acted as a distraction as it made one yearn for a more consistent pattern one way or the other. Although for this subject the stronger choice would be to make a more direct adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, particularly considering the strength of the performers involved.
Timothée Chalamet is a born, striking lead. The film suffers when he is not on screen and thankfully there are very few instances when he isn’t. At the beginning he is arrogant and dismissive of the needs of others, particularly that of his father Henry IV’s request to see him at court before his death. And yet it is quite evident that even though Henry wants no part of his father’s conflict or lineage he is knowledgeable about England and the responsibilities of the King. He is young, perhaps too young to take on the throne, but so is his younger brother, who naively follows the will of their father to go to war over petty disputes with Scotland and the other northern realms. Before the battle can begin Henry asserts himself in the conflict, overriding his brother’s commands and challenging the opposing leader to a one on one duel that will settle the dispute. The duel begins and Henry handles himself well in the fight. He is wily and relies on his brain rather than his strength so that when he loses his sword and his footing to his rival he is still able to overcome him in the end. The duel choreography is not particularly pretty but that is the point. This is an era of swords and plate armor where weight, size, footwork and skill determine your chances in battle and it is clear that everyone involved in the production elected for authenticity and realism.
This is what leads to Henry becoming King of England. After the duel, Henry’s brother is so humiliated by his brother taking his glory that he goes off to fight another battle and dies worthlessly, an event Henry was trying to prevent with the duel in the first place. Nevertheless, Henry is crowned King and what precedes is a deliberately slow evolution of Henry becoming a worthy ruler. The pace itself is not a problem, the execution of said pace is. The intention is to witness the complete change of Henry’s character from the beginning to the end, but that transformation is achieved solely through Chalamet’s performance rather than the way in which he was shot.
The screenplay is offers Chalamet and others like Edgerton as Sir John Falstaff and Sean Harris as William Chief Justice to deliver strong performances but it also brings about too many disappointments. The Dauphin of France, played by a deliciously evil Robert Pattinson, who taunts King Henry V at every chance he has would be a great film villain if he were given the time and attention needed to develop.
The same goes for a “twist” reveal after France has surrendered and King Henry V is to marry the French King’s daughter. This twist is only telegraphed once earlier in the film and it is done so in the most vague way possible making the moment pointless. Ultimately, this film is an exercise in “I wish they would have done or tried this…” That is hard when depicting a moment of history, but it would have been nice if they tried to telegraph the betrayal of some of King Henry’s most loyal followers. It would have been nice to see King Henry’s psychological state examined through the slow pace as he finds more and more reason to suspect those around him and the reason events around him are happening so fast he has no actual control over them. Maybe then it would’ve been a worthy opportunity to watch Chalamet’s star continue to rise and shine before our very eyes.