In David Michôd’s The King, Henry IV parts one and two and Henry V combine into a singular story that pays homage to Shakespeare’s characters, while offering us a fresh take on his famous plays. Before we proceed let’s get one thing straight, The King is not a Shakespearian adaptation, and anyone watching the film expecting such should watch the divine The Hollow Crown instead. However, this is in no way a criticism of The King, as it does act as an entry point to Shakespeare, encouraging people who may feel alienated to delve into the majesty of his work.
In Michôd’s vision, Shakespeare’s characters are taken on a vastly different journey. Here the confidence of a newly crowned king is cloaked in insecurity, while the buffoonery and sadness of Fallstaff are replaced with a far more serious interpretation. These changes may be difficult to swallow for those, like me, who love Henry IV. Yet, strangely, they broadly work in Michôd’s world due to a stunning cast’s rich and compelling performances.
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Before he becomes Henry V, Hal (Chalamet) shuns all the responsibility attached to his name and position, spending his time drinking, partying and sleeping his way around London. In The King, Hal is painted as the 15th Century teenage rebel, who hates his father and has no time for the position of King. But when his father Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) dies, he reluctantly assumes the responsibilities he was intent on running away from, convinced he can build a better kingdom than the one his father presided over. However, as war with France looms, the newly crowned Henry V must prove his place, his temperament changed as politics and war collide.
There is much to be admired in the attempt to condense three lengthy and detailed play’s into one film. However, the result is patchy, as the character-building of Henry IV parts one and two are rushed to completion in favour of a Henry V narrative. This creates an unfortunate void when exploring themes of power, family and position, never allowing Chalamet’s Hal to fully explore his motivations. Equally, characters including Henry Percy (Tom Glynn-Carney) feel rushed, their importance to the overarching story never fully appreciated in the final film.
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However, despite these weaknesses, the film is rescued by its young lead Timothée Chalamet, who once more proves his place as one of the finest young actors in cinema. Chalamet’s King Henry is both naive and confident as he attempts to define his place and purpose, his responsibilities sitting uncomfortably on his narrow shoulders, as the weight of politics hangs around his slender neck. This is an insecure but stoic young King, who is still finding his place in the world surrounding him. Here Chalamet’s outstanding performance is full of the raw emotion and fear of a boy forced into manhood. Meanwhile, his scenes alongside Robert Pattinson’s gloriously sinister and egotistical Dauphin of France are a pure cinematic joy as both men clash in a ‘whose dick is bigger’ teenage battle.
Equally impressive is the clunky armour and the filth of battle in a film centred around the gradual decay of innocence. Here the beautiful cinematography bathes the audience in subtle colours as natural light is gloriously used to full effect in creating a sense of realism. But it is within its political discussions that Michôd’s film is at its most interesting as it critiques the power of those who advise rather than those who wear the crown.
The King is far from perfect but it does open a door for those who have not read the work of Shakespeare, while also offering us an engaging slice of historical drama that plays to the Game of Thrones generation.
Director: David Michôd
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Tom Glynn-Carney.
Australia / United States / United Kingdom (2019)