THE KING (2019) (NETFLIX)
SYNOPSIS: Wayward Prince Hal must turn from carouser to warrior king as he faces hostilities from inside and outside the castle walls in the battle for England.
If you’re going to be a purist about Shakespeare’s source material, then you should probably avoid ‘The King’, which takes significant creative liberties with the Bard’s history plays – ‘Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V’. But those looking for a compelling period epic need not be deterred, for writer-director David Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton have fashioned a gripping story about kingdom politics; more specifically, their story revolves around the machinations which conspired to legitimise the young King Henry V’s unexpected ascent to the throne, following the death of his father and the notable rift between father and son which was never reconciled.
Those familiar with the story will know that Prince Hal was toxically estranged from King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) – on one hand, Hal was perfectly content to carouse in the lower-class tavern of London’s Eastcheap quarter with his pal Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton), and did not care to see his father even while the latter was ill and dying; on the other, King Henry IV so loathed his eldest son Hal that he had declared the younger brother Thomas to be king. Unfortunately, having inherited his father’s appetite for war, Thomas soon dies in battle in Wales, despite Hal’s best advice to not follow in their father’s footsteps.
Upon Hal’s coronation as King Henry V, the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) sends him a child’s ball as a present, and though urged by his Ministers to regard it as an insult, Hal refuses to be goaded into war. That changes when the Dauphin purportedly sends an assassin to kill him, which leads Hal to agree with the counsel of his Chief Justice (Sean Harris) to respond with force. Hal pleads with Falstaff to lead his army into war, partly given the latter’s experience with the battlefield, and partly because he is suspicious of the agendas of each and every one of the palace officials who now surround him day in and day out.
The piece de resistance is the Battle of Agincourt, where Hal found himself outnumbered and outpositioned by the French but eventually through strategy and grit managed to bring the latter to their knees. That victory is credit to Falstaff too, who had foreseen how he could use the elements to their advantage. It is thrillingly staged, but never such as to glamourise the messiness of war; and the lead-up to that shows how King Henry V found himself confronted with his own impulses as he struggles to find the right response to a series of setbacks, including the French’s ambush and beheading of an English child within the advancing party.
It is King Henry V’s coming-of-age which forms the backbone of the character development behind this adaptation, and Timothée Chalamet is absolutely magnificent in the role. Proving himself yet again to be a whipsmart actor, Chalamet keenly portrays the disdain which Hal feels towards the throne as a result of his resentment towards his father, his struggle to define his espoused pacifism amidst the advice otherwise from his court as well as the apparent provocations by the French, and his maturation both on the battlefield and back in the palace from having fought and won a war on his own leadership. Edgerton and Harris are strong supports in their respective roles as Hal’s counsel, but it is Chalamet who holds the film throughout with his nuanced portrayal of the titular character.
At more than two hours long, ‘The King’ never feels like a drag thanks to Michôd’s expert direction; as with ‘Animal Kingdom’ and ‘War Machine’, Michôd is in full control of the mise-en-scene here, slowly and confidently building up the events leading up to the pivotal Battle of Agincourt. Michôd also finds firm support in composer Nicholas Britell's stirring orchestral score, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s mud-splattered palette and editor Peter Sciberras’ firm pacing. As a period epic, it is rich and sumptuous all right, and in a different era, this would certainly be the sort of picture which is positioned for awards-season attention in the cinemas.
So even though it takes significant liberties with the Bard’s work, these are sophistically taken and ultimately reinforce what both Michôd and Edgerton have to say about the corrupting influence of the institutions of power. There is of course contemporary relevance to the story, and without any bias for either side of the political spectrum, has clear parallels with a certain idealistic American President whose policies never did speak as loudly as his ideals. Yet you don’t need to get the subtext in order to enjoy ‘The King’, which engrosses from start to finish and reverberates with the star charisma of Chalamet; as long as you’re prepared to put aside your literary trappings, you’ll find a story of impressive scale and resonance that is nothing short of majestic.
Review by Gabriel Chong