Set aside your Shakespearean expectations—don’t hold your breath waiting for “Once more unto the breach” or a mention of St. Crispin’s Day—and you can have a fine time at “The King,” David Michôd’s retelling of the span of English history covered in the Bard’s “Henry IV—Parts I and II” and “Henry V.” Michôd and co-writer Joel Edgerton (who also plays Falstaff) use the plays as a template—and depart from history as often as they do, though sometimes in different ways—but they’ve crafted a version of the mid-Lancastrian period in English history that’s dramatically effective on its own terms as a commentary on the inevitability and futility of war.
As the film opens, an ill King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), who has just argued with young Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) over ransoming prisoners taken in battle, decides to disinherit his oldest son Henry (Timothée Chalamet) in favor of his younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). His choice is based partially on Henry’s preference for negotiation rather than war, but also on the fact that the prince is leading a dissolute life in the company of old soldier Falstaff.
When Thomas leads the royal force against Hotspur, however, Henry, usually given to either brooding or licentiousness, intervenes to challenge the reckless rebel to one-on-one combat to decide the battle without massive bloodshed, and emerges victorious. He still intends to step aside from public affairs, but the death of Thomas compels him to visit the dying Henry IV and accept the crown, with the intention of exercising power very differently from the way his war-loving father had.
His rule is challenged by dissension within the court among noblemen, even some friends, who doubt his mettle, but especially troubling is an insulting accession gift from his continental rival, the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson)—the country with whom England is still at war. Henry’s inclination is to refrain from conflict—a decision that the chief advisor he has inherited from his father, William Gascoigne (Sean Harris) agrees to. But when William tells Henry that an assassin has been sent by France to kill him, Henry has no choice but to act.
He relents on his earlier decision, however, to break off his friendship with Falstaff, who in this telling is no aged reprobate but a seasoned, intelligent soldier who becomes his chief military counselor. When the small English invasion force reaches the field of Agincourt and faces a far larger French army under the Dauphin, it is Falstaff who not only suggests the strategy that can bring victory (against the advice of Steven Elder’s cautious Dorset, who urges retreat), but insists on leading the assault despite the fact that it will undoubtedly mean his death.
The battle itself—like the earlier sequences of combat in the film—is depicted in extremely gritty terms as a muddy, bloody affair, capped off by a one-on-one challenge of Henry by the Dauphin that proves a French disaster. The final section of the film turns on the diplomacy that leads to Henry being recognized as heir to the French throne and marrying Princess of Valois (Lily-Rose Depp). But any sense of triumph is dispelled by her revelations to her new husband, which lead to his recognition that he has been manipulated in turning from diplomacy to war.
Shakespeare’s Henriad, of course, is susceptible to varying interpretations, including an anti-war perspective. But it would be difficult to read a triumphal message into “The King.” Prince Hal is presented as the very opposite of his father, who’s a warmonger imbued with cruelty. (He realizes Hotspur is an enemy, but admires his “venomous” personality so much that he expresses the wish his sons were like him.) Hal, on the other hand, clearly despises the brutality and carnage of his age, and hopes to act in a different mode as monarch; it’s definitely a more modern conception than the norm, and Chalamet embodies it in a performance that’s quite contemporary in its attitude. Thin, sallow and sad, he knows he has to do things he finds repugnant, and is deeply disappointed when he has to face the reality of how things work in the corridors of power. It’s a portrait of principle—or a kind of innocence or naiveté, if you prefer, corrupted by the actualities of power politics. Chalamet captures all that with an almost feline sensitivity and grace, but he can also morph into determination and pugnacity when necessary. It’s a typically nuanced performance.
The greatest contrast to him comes from Pattison as the Dauphin (who wasn’t actually at the battle of Agincourt, of course). As opposed to Chalamet’s sobriety, Pattison opts for a florid portrait of an arrogant, cynical fop whose snobbish assurance proves not to be coupled with personal or strategic ability. It’s a turn viewers will appreciate for its sheer flamboyance, bringing as it does just a touch of humor to an otherwise very dark piece.
An equally significant contrast is drawn between Falstaff and Gascoigne, the former the bluff friend whose experience proves invaluable and is willing to put his life on the line, and the latter the cautious pragmatist for whom self-interest proves the major driving force. Edgerton and Harris bring each to life without exaggeration. Solid contributions are added by Mendelssohn as deteriorating Henry IV, Glynn-Carney as reckless Hotspur, Chapman as petulant Thomas, Andrew Havill as the imperious archbishop of Canterbury, Elder as cautious Dorset, and Thibault de Montalembert as King Charles VI. This is not a story with a strong feminine presence, but Depp makes Catherine a formidable presence in just a couple of scenes, and Thomasin McKenzie has a nice cameo as Hal’s sister Phillippa of Denmark, whose experience at the court there leads her to tell her brother to watch out for back-stabbers.
The brooding look of the picture highlights the effectiveness of Fiona Crombie’s production design and Jane Petrie’s costumes, but it is Adam Arkapaw’s widescreen cinematography, with its muted colors, that captures the mood. Together with Peter Sciberras’ editing, it also makes the most of the battlefield sequences, from the desolate aftermath that opens the film and the sword-to-sword combat of Hal and Hotspur to Agincourt, where the clash of man against man is brought across with both fury and pathos (and room for a little levity with the postscript on Pattinson’s pathetic last-minute intrusion).
“The King” will not replace Shakespeare’s treatment of Henry V, but it provides a sturdy alternative—an intelligent, incisive portrait of the king as a young man learning the sad truth of his office.