This story was originally published on 3 September 2019, when The King premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
Director: David Michôd
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Timothée Chalamet, Lily-Rose Depp and Joel Edgerton
Run-time: 140 min
Release date: On Netflix 1 November 2019
Timothée Chalamet’s Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me by Your Name made him the poster boy for masculinity at its most delicate and sensitive: his cry-athon over the closing credits made sure of that. But he is even more delicate and sensitive as King Henry V in David Michôd’s sombre historical drama, The King. Never mind that the Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s plays started off a hard-drinking party animal. In The King, he is updated to become Emo Hal.
More like this:
- Is Wasp Network this year’s best spy thriller?
- Four stars for The Truth
- Brad Pitt stars in Ad Astra
In the opening scenes, he seems unsuitable for kingship, not because he is too much of a wastrel; he is, in fact, a brave and skilful soldier, as he proves in a savage duel with Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Tom Glynn-Carney); who knew that knights in armour spent so much time punching each other? No, the reason Hal doesn’t seem right for England’s top job is that he is just too darn soulful. Whether he is moping around Eastcheap’s taverns as a prince, or arguing with his courtiers when he is on the throne, he always comes across as if he would rather be writing poetry about how unfair the world is. At one point, he pushes an eager wench out of his bed because he wants to lie there and think brooding thoughts instead. He is also absurdly spindly for such an accomplished warrior. Even with his armour on, he is so skinny and awkward that he could be a prototype for C-3PO.
The film’s liveliest scenes come when the army reaches France, and Robert Pattinson camps it up as the ludicrously evil Dauphin
Other characters have been modernised, too. Sir John Falstaff, who is likeably played by the film’s co-writer, Joel Edgerton, is no longer Shakespeare’s cowardly sot, but a distinguished, down-to-earth military veteran who is less interested in wine, women and song than in telling people that war is hell. He is more Little John than Friar Tuck, in other words. (And guess who comes up with England’s winning strategy at the battle of Agincourt?) Lily-Rose Depp appears as France’s Princess Catherine, and spends most of her screen time lecturing Henry on male immaturity. In general, The King isn’t a stirring paean to patriotism and martial glory, but a melancholy 21st-Century take on the loneliness of command and the drudgery of war. You might describe it as ‘talky’, but everyone is so soft-spoken that ‘whispery’ would be more accurate. The lighting is low, the palette ranges from greys to browns, and the gloomy orchestral score adds an almost subliminal extra layer of sorrow to what is already a less than exhilarating experience.
The story begins with Ben Mendelsohn’s Henry IV looking even more poorly than Ben Mendelsohn usually does. Riddled both with paranoia and some sort of icky medieval pox, he decrees that his successor will be Hal’s squeaky-voiced but hawkish younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). But it is the reluctant Hal who ends up trimming his wavy bob into a Blackadder bowl-cut, and taking over his father’s position in the violent family business: the plot borrows as much from The Godfather as it does from Shakespeare. Once he is in power, Henry’s plan is that the country’s noblemen should forget their grievances and concentrate on, I don’t know, painting their bedrooms black. But when his beady-eyed right-hand man (Sean Harris) captures a French assassin, Henry realises – rather too quickly – that sometimes a king’s got to do what a king’s got to do. A couple of gory executions later, the English fleet sails across the Channel, and Henry makes his own journey from wilting wallflower to ruthless slaughterer.
The film’s liveliest scenes come when the army reaches France, and Robert Pattinson camps it up as the ludicrously evil Dauphin. There is a nicely muddy battle sequence after that, and a crafty final twist improves everything that went before it in retrospect. Otherwise, though, The King is an underwhelming character study which makes some obvious points about the steel and ambition required to lead a country. Slightly too fond of its dour mood and its fey leading man, this diary of a wimpy king is recommended principally to people who want to watch Chalamet lounging around being sad, often while he’s got off his top off. Luckily for the film’s producers, that should be quite a lot of people.
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.