The King is, in a word, severe. Formidably darker than Henry V adaptations in the past, it centres on a troubled Hal (Timothée Chalamet) who reluctantly takes on the mantle of kingship from a manipulative father (Ben Mendelsohn), forcing him into a political power-play with the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson). A lot of the festival buzz owes to the cast: including an unrecognisable Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the screenplay, echoing his Exodus: Gods and Kings production). Whether or not you lean towards theatrical releases or their simultaneous Netflix offerings, the grand-scale experience will certainly be diluted when transferred to the small screen — so I’d urge anyone to see it while it’s on a limited release.
Director: David Michôd
Release date: September 2, 2019 (Venice); October 3, 2019 (LFF)
In 15th century England, Henry IV is close to death’s door and appointing a successor. To set the scene, the King has a face-off with one of his subjects. It’s ostensibly regarding Mortimer, who is kept in prison on the other side of the country while Henry gorges himself in luxury in his castle, but the resentment goes deeper than that. Henry’s acerbic words and quick dispatch of the courtier reveals what a cold-blooded ruler he really is.
Between his ‘soft’, pretty-boy youngest son and his eldest, the drunkard Hal, he chooses the first to lead the kingdom after his death. That is, until sly political manoeuvres intervene with fate and the crown is passed to a reluctant Hal.
Prince Hal doesn’t exactly appear to be king material when we first meet him: his reputation as a whoring drunkard precedes him. It must be his way of processing PTSD: we see him on a battlefield, victorious but disturbed by the lack of humanity in war. His blasé attitude to the crown and kingship stems from this, and perhaps show that he’s immature and undeserving of responsibility.
Throughout the film, he oscillates between highly irresponsible and surprisingly compassionate. For example, even when Hal takes on the crown at his coronation, his bare feet indicate a rebellious spirit that will not be tamed. Knowing the minds of his father’s subjects, he refers to himself as ‘that son you so revile’. It’s a twist on the heroic king from Shakespeare’s Henry V, whose rebellion is only hinted at before he launches into a heroic reign.But at the same time he has already shown his character by attempting to save his brother and an entire army from destruction by fighting one-on-one combat himself. He’s a difficult character to read.
The unique thing about this adaption is that children are so prominent. Hal and his brother are just young princes, wrestling with the fate of nations on their shoulders. Their younger sister Philippa, who can’t be more than halfway through her teenage years, is already the Queen of Denmark and gives wise counsel beyond her years, warning Hal of the dangers of malice in the court. Children decide the future of the kingdom and of each other.
The familiar story becomes more apparent when Hal receives a gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson). The blonde-haired, French-speaking man is nothing like the teenage heartthrob from the Twilight years: he’s a fully fledged household name, bordering on method actor (thanks to other arthouse appearances, his upcoming run as Batman and most recently in The Lighthouse). But make no mistake: this is no gentle child, but a cold-blooded killer. When an assassin from the French throne arrive at the English court, Hal retaliates: “this is an infant act of war”.
As Hal takes on new responsibilities as king, he seeks counsel from other members of the court. Some are forthcoming, dispensing useful advice like “Problems left untended become crises.” Others immediately try to betray him, to which Hal’s reaction is to behead them swiftly. As I watched I wondered how they might pull off the stunt, perhaps by editing away to another scene as is customary. But lo and behold, the camera stays on the head while it’s severed, and we get an unflinching look at the brutality Hal has within him.
The film begs the question: if you can’t trust your own family, who can you trust? Indeed, during his reign Hal finds the need to keep a friend, John Falstaff (Edgerton), close by his side. This lowly ‘keeper of the prince’s puke’ from days gone by is knighted and becomes a faithful servant of the king, even through his moments of madness and recklessness as they journey to war with France.
Hal learns a lot from Falstaff, and his humanity becomes more evident as he shows mercy to towns under siege. But his biggest opponent is yet to be revealed. An hour and twenty minutes into the film (it’s a slow-burner, but never loses momentum) the Dauphin and Hal finally meet. After all their scheming, they revert to sharp-tongued repartee and brutal scare tactics in a dark game of cat-and-mouse on French soil.
As Hal goes deeper into the war, the more troubled, enraged, and paranoid he becomes. After all, that kind of responsibility doesn’t come without an emotional toll. It takes Falstaff’s experience and cool, clear head to help him see reason in the situation. Even when he doubts himself, Falstaff is a loyal guide.
For viewers who might have been expecting the famous ‘Band of Brothers’ speech prior to the critical Battle of Agincourt, Michôd updates it to modern, lucid prose: “You are England! Make it England!” The power with which Chalamet delivers the charge is remarkable. In so many of his roles, he is relegated to the role of a rather soft character, used as a foil to female protagonists (see Gerwig’s Lady Bird or upcoming Little Women), or is feminised (as in Call Me By Your Name). But here, the full force of his capabilities as a performer are put on display and he shines in the role like he was born for this moment. It’s aggressive, dramatic, and utterly compelling.
I’d be surprised if the film’s intense final battle scene goes without comment. Clocking in at several minutes of minimally-edited footage, it’s probably a more realistic portrayal of war than the relatively sterile treatment in other Hollywood productions. And after all, it leads to victory for the English, but almost pyrrhic in its losses.
By the end of the drama, Hal has much more of a sense of who he is and his responsibilities as king. But a final remark — just a simple observation — brings everything crashing down. Without saying enough to spoil the film, it’s a wholly unexpected twist and I was taken aback. It was enough to topple my perception of the narrative and I’m eager to see it again to catch the signs. Thank goodness for Netflix — it seems as if streaming has its benefits within the festival circuit after all.