There have been many adaptations of Shakespeare’s work to the big screen with varying results. Twice before Australians have tackled the Bard’s work with Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth both hitting the silver screen with positive critical response. Once again it seems the combination of Australian director David Michôd, with fellow Aussie actor/writer collaborator Joel Edgerton to take on the Shakespearean Henriad plays. The result The King is an ambitious film that tries to balance the depths of political deception with the brutality of war and battle.
The reign of King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) is fuelled by war as the factions of feudal England continue to fight. The reluctant Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) prefers to spend his days in a brothel womanising and getting drunk with his friend and former knight Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) and disagrees with his father’s choices. When he is summoned to see his ailing father, he is told that his younger brother Thomas of Lancaster (Dean-Charles Chapman) has been named as the heir. Thomas, determined to prove his worth and appease their father continues on with the war against Wales only to lose his life. When Henry IV passes and the rule falls by default to the young Hal, he takes on the mantle of Henry V. Attempting to navigate the perils of political manipulation as well as potential war with France forces this young man to accept his destiny to rule.
The film sees hot acting property and previous Oscar nominee Chalamet in the lead role taking on the ascension of a young man to the throne. His journey from naive idealist to the worn down cynical and suspicious monarch allows Chalamet to deliver an extremely meaty and dramatic performance. Bearing in mind the reality that in the 15th Century people didn’t live very long, having Chalamet step into the shoes of a twenty-something man thrust into ruling a kingdom isn’t that far fetched. Edgerton also gets to share some significant screen time playing the blunt and gruff Falstaff, a man who is all too familiar with the barbarism of war and its best strategies. This duo is thoroughly endearing and engaging to watch. When we near the end of the film and the climactic Battle of Agincourt we truly see the value in their friendship and each other’s counsel.
Another Australian, Ben Mendelsohn, gets a turn as the tyrannical and terrible Henry IV. The brief time he’s on screen we get to once again loathe him, and he’s always reliable for playing dastardly characters. Whilst Sean Harris plays a trusted advisor to the young king, with potentially nefarious maneuvering as his weapon of choice. There’s also a scene stealing Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France, goading Henry to war purely for the fun of it. Mentioning anymore would spoil how hilarious he is, he’s worth it just for the laughs. The testosterone heavy cast lineup is broken up by Lily-Rose Depp as Catherine, daughter of King Charles VI of France who manages to completely flip Henry’s ego and make him realise the futility of war.
At 2 hours and 30 minutes though the film is exhaustingly long and focuses intently on the dramatic turns and machinations of the royal court than it does on the action. Even though Michôd and Edgerton have crafted a script that ditches the Iambic pentameter and drawn out soliloquies in favour of more accessible period English linguistics, it’s still really only for a niche audience of anglophiles. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography and Fiona Crombie’s production design, particularly with the Battle of Agincourt, is one shining moment of medieval greatness. With that final battle reminiscent of Game of Thrones’ Battle of the Bastards as armoured knights and soldiers pile on top of each other in a muddy mucky mess.
The King is definitely not for everyone, but it’s a more accessible and palatable take on the tale of Henry V. It has exceptional performances by its main cast that help to propel its narrative which at times can get bogged down in its own importance and seriousness.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The King is having a limited theatrical run in select cinemas now and will be available to stream on Netflix from 1st November 2019.