The King is the muddiest and bloodiest take yet on Henry V. This dark and brooding film by David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) adapts William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I and Part II and Henry V plays with thrilling vigour. Anchored by an outstanding performance by Timothée Chalamet, The King offers Shakespeare for a contemporary audience. While it admittedly plays fast and loose with both history and Shakespeare, The King is thrilling stuff. Michôd’s film is fleshed out with cinematic scope, accessible language, pummeling bleakness, and ample intensity. It distils the essence of the plays into one sharp, bold, and visceral vision.
Chalamet is perfectly cast as Henry V (“Hal” to his friends), playing the virile price not yet fit to rule. At 24 years old, Chalamet is obviously much closer in age to his character. Unlike, say, Laurence Olivier, who took the part when he was 37. (Henry V was dead and buried before he was 36.) The young actor’s boyish charm and smaller frame marks Hal as a premature royal. Unlike Olivier, or Kenneth Branagh, Chalamet doesn’t stroll into the role like a man ready for the crown.
His father Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) finds his head growing weary under the crown. But Hal is missing in action from court. He’s out drinking and whoring it up with his buddy John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). The boorish Falstaff is a knight turned drunkard who commands a tavern like he ruled the battlefield. But when Henry IV dies (always a good thing when a film involves Mendelsohn), Hal must grow up to become Henry. He must prove himself a true king in the eyes of his father’s allies, advisors, and adversaries.
This feat proves especially difficult since Henry rejects his father’s fondness for war. Henry IV’s old school love for the battlefield is responsible for the distance between the father and son. Henry V, weary of war and aware of its futility, calls for unity in divisive times. England is torn, sore from years of infighting due to his father’s thirst for power. The French, meanwhile, are ready to strike when England seems weak.
The King briskly distills the story of Henry’s ascension to the throne with some bloody battles to enliven the tale. For fellow members of the Shakespeare on Film Fan Club, it complements Orson Welles’ 1965 film Chimes at Midnight and its take on the Henry plays. Welles offered a similar adaptation, but from the perspective of Falstaff, while The King sticks with Hal/Henry V. However, Michôd and Edgerton’s script gives audiences something new through its liberties with history and Shakespeare. While die-hards might decry some of the changes, The King benefits from the power of the unexpected. Unpredictable manoeuvres often win wars.
Michôd directs the film with grit and tenacity. The King sits closer to Welles and Branagh’s emphasis on violence over valour. It gets down in the mud with Shakespeare, tussles with him, and spits in his eye. The Battle of Agincourt is an especially fine realization of the horrors of war that Henry abhors. It’s a mud-soaked melee and a brutal battle royal. The English and French soldiers go blow for blow on the battlefield. They punch metal and eat dirt until The King‘s body count outpaces Hamlet’s. Top-notch work from the tech and craft team adds to the film’s invigoratingly cinematic punch. Especially good are the costumes by Jane Petrie, cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, and score by Nicholas Britell.
One notable difference between Michôd’s film and other adaptations is the depiction of Falstaff. Gone is the jolly corpulent image of the merry man whom Hal betrays. Edgerton’s take on Falstaff is as far from Welles’s Santa Claus figure as one can get. (A smart move, since Welles’s Falstaff might be the best performance ever in a Shakespeare flick.) Instead, this Falstaff is a hardened mirror of Hal. He’s eager to prove himself, but tired of the ravages of war.
As with many takes on Shakespeare, though, the performances reign supreme. Chalamet again proves his star power and dramatic chops by holding his own in a new field. His brooding King Henry is one for the books. But even better might be Robert Pattinson’s small but memorable appearance as the Dauphin of France. Playing the buffoonish Francophone counterpart to Chalamet’s king, Pattinson’s Dauphin is the Hal that never grows up into Henry. Sporting a truly ridiculous accent and a go-for-broke interpretation of Henry’s foil, Pattinson’s performance is a delightful balancing act of over-the-top ridiculousness. It’s a welcome reprieve in a film that’s nearly too grim for its own good.
Similarly, the The King omits the Shakespearean verse, which affords the performances some freedom. The contemporary flare in The King’s language gives it extra bite and lets present-day politics seep into the tale. Gone too are the many long-winded monologues of Henry V, Shakespeare’s speechiest play. When Chalamet finally takes delivers one of Henry’s great orations, it stokes a greater fire because one hasn’t already endured 27 soliloquies. This rousing moment offers a bellowing Brexit-y take on Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech with which the king rallies the troops at the Battle of Agincourt. The words offer a plea for a united England and for the men to see themselves as brothers. Chalamet’s fiery and spit-inflected delivery would make Olivier, Branagh, and Welles proud.
The King opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Oct. 16 and launches on Netflix November 1.