David Michôd’s The King wastes the benefits of being a Netflix film — by evading a typical theatrical run, it will not be judged by its box office takings — therefore it’s baffling that greater risks weren’t taken. As an audience-conscious adaption of Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad’, The King is thoroughly well-made but stiflingly unremarkable. However, this does serve to accentuate its very good qualities; chief among them is Timothée Chalamet’s performance as the new king.
The king of red carpets displays powerful range as King Henry V. This is a performance that justifies the extraordinary hype the young actor has cultivated since playing Elio Perlman. Hal (by which Henry is also known) begins as a party animal far more interested in alcohol and sex than politics and the concerns of the court. The passing of his father suddenly accelerates Hal’s ascension to England’s throne. In a position he was entirely reluctant to occupy, he must contend with the diplomatic issues left by his late father in the context of his own, initially pacifist, philosophies.
Fortunately, he has his close friend, Falstaff (Joel Edgerton, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Michôd) nearby. With great zest, Edgerton performs the most important role as the charismatic entry point for viewers. Channeling an inviting energy that grabs the frame. Edgerton contrasts well with Sean Harris as William Gascoigne, an advisor leftover from Hal’s father’s reign. Harris’ mousey features and intimidating eyes present him as a slippery and commanding figure. He speaks with authority and proves effective in bringing Hal to the decision to lay claim to the French crown.
This is a fine trio that holds The King together. Beyond them, Michôd’s film is aggressively mainstream. Although never boring, the storyline is very straightforward. In even further effort to increase The King’s tolerability, the script is stripped of the Bard’s original writing. The script gains modernity and clarity at the cost of imaginative poetry.
But the catering towards a wider audience does not stop there. The King is conspicuously inspired by other success stories. After Hal performs a Theoden-esque rallying speech on the fields of Agincourt, a muddy and cramped battle unfolds akin to Game of Thrones’ ‘Battle of the Bastards’ — even recycling the same shots. All of this is just about forgivable until a post-battle, teary-eyed Timothée is framed exactly like the iconic final scene of Call Me By Your Name.
With so many comparisons taking place, little is distinctly memorable about The King. In tone, atmosphere and aesthetic, it feels very much like the sister production to Netflix’s other recent medieval epic, Outlaw King. But if anything is to be immortalized in meme and memory, it is Robert Pattinson’s portrayal as The Dauphin of France. His haggard blonde hair, ostentatious mannerisms and alarming French accent fills the room. This is an out-of-place performance that is also fondly welcomed; like Falstaff, his presence makes The King feel like theatre. If only The King hadn’t taken itself so seriously, Pattinson would have seemed less out of place.
It takes the epilogue to throw The King off of its linear, narrow path it had thus far followed. Lily-Rose Depp enters as Princess Catherine of France. She is an oracle in the way she shrinks the kingly Hal back down to size with her opinions of him.
There is no denying that The King is very-well made. Although the score is predictable, it is emotionally stirring in all the right places. And the sound design is stunning: from breastplate and chainmail clashing, to cavalry charging and trebuchets roaring, all were visceral attacks on the ears through the Dolby Atmos sound system — whether this effect will be retained during a home viewing experience is, unfortunately, doubtable.
The King does not break new ground so much as it lies down on the ground in an act of comfortable complacency. It refuses to be daring and suffers because of it. This is both enjoyable in the moment but glaringly insignificant in aftertaste.