Prince Henry (Timothée Chalamet) is forced to cast aside his drunken antics and issues with his family after his father dies and he becomes a king. But even as he tries to become a peaceful monarch, palace politics and conflict with France may make him the tyrant he always sought to reject.
In Netflix’s world of rinse-and-repeat horror films and true-crime documentaries, a Shakespearean epic with the budget and potential literary weight of The King is an interesting step. To add further intrigue, the movie is directed by indie filmmaker David Michôd, known for his stripped-back directing and dystopian-style narratives. Add a compelling cast of acclaimed actors (some with a background in Shakespearean theatre) and you have all the ingredients for a film that blends the metaphysical weight of the Bard’s prose with a gritty, self-reflective edge. What we get instead misses the mark in a confused muddle of over-lengthy, repetitive sequences.
Michôd and Joel Edgerton penned the script based on a collection of Shakespeare’s plays about King Henry IV and V. The coming-of-age narrative follows the latter Henry’s handwringing as he grows from flamboyant royal outcast to brooding monarch. The weight of power is a tried-and-tested theme in medieval stories, simply because it’s so interesting. Is it possible to follow a moral compass? Are sacrifices made worth it? Is peace possible without war? These are questions asked time after time by compelling lead characters as they wrestle for control of themselves and their kingdoms. The King, unfortunately, manages to unintentionally circumvent these questions with a weak protagonist. The narrative should have been built around King Henry’s struggles against the forces around him – instead he seems passive and with no guiding principles. He wants to be a peaceful monarch, but does little to prevent battles from taking place. He first comes across as strong-willed and self-possessed, but he quickly becomes a doormat as the film goes on. Characteristic changes are to be expected as a narrative evolves. But the script leaves King Henry (and other characters too) flimsy and inconsistent, which compromises the whole story. On top of that, the film was dull and lengthy in parts. At a 142 minute-run time, Michôd should have been more judicious with his editing to give us a tighter narrative.
The directing is an arena in which Michôd has had far greater success. The King is visually pleasing, with sweeping shots of moody castles and foggy battlefields making a compelling backdrop. One particular sequence, the infamous Battle of Agincourt, is the perfect nightmarish advert for war. Close ups of soldiers writhing in the mud and crushed against one another is the total inverse of slick battles in the likes of Lord of the Rings. Michôd and his cinematography team do an impeccable job of capturing war’s every foul – and realistic – detail.
On the acting front, The King is a mixed bag. Edgerton puts in a memorable and nuanced performance as Henry’s friend and foil Falstaff. Combining fatherly humour and tough-edged military nous, Falstaff is the perfect support for a compelling lead. The let-down is Chalamet’s inability to do more with admittedly thin material. His Henry is more confused than tortured, his Shakespearean gravitas carrying no message behind it.
Ultimately there is a lot to enjoy in The King – but a lot more that will leave you befuddled and checking your watch.
The King lacks the cohesive narrative and acting performances to tie together a memorable Shakespearean classic. 6/10.