The epic cycle of Shakespeare’s Henriad is a narrative feat practically unmatched in English literature. The saga of victory and betrayal spans the reigns of multiple real kings, but it has only so much to do with actual history. Rather, it’s a work of mythmaking that massages the truth into a hero’s journey about the young wastrel “Prince Hal” becoming the noble King Henry V. David Michôd’s new film, The King, attempts to translate that myth into something real and gritty while retaining Shakespeare’s grandiloquent characterization and colorful plotting.
The result is baffling: Michôd’s film, which he wrote with his frequent collaborator Joel Edgerton, crams the plots of three Shakespeare plays (both parts of Henry IV and Henry V) into a single, 140-minute drama. The King charts the rise of Prince Hal (played by Timothée Chalamet) to the English throne as he succeeds his dismal father (Ben Mendelsohn) and wages a protracted war with France in the early 15th century. Like many of Michôd’s works (including the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, the brutal western The Rover, and the Iraq War satire War Machine), The King is suffused with masculine grunting, spittle-flecked speech making, and bloody conflict. To quote another of the Bard’s royal characters, it ends up feeling like a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The King is a bizarre mix of fact and fiction that sacrifices the realism Michôd is trying to convey, as well as the humor and charm of Shakespeare’s plays. In this telling, Hal is uninterested in his royal duties because he abhors combat and scorns his father’s saber-rattling, which is an odd stance to attribute to England’s most famous warrior king. While the film generally hews to the historical basics of Henry V’s rise to the throne, it prominently features the invented character of Falstaff, played by Edgerton. In Shakespeare’s writing, Falstaff is a poetic symbol of Prince Hal’s wayward younger days, a cheerful drunk who must be cast aside as the noble boy ascends to responsibility and manhood. Not so in The King, where Edgerton plays Falstaff as a slightly portly lieutenant, fond of wine but also skilled on the battlefield, who acts as a helpful adviser to Henry.
As a leading man, Chalamet operates best when he gets to be a little playful. His breakout performance in 2017’s Call Me by Your Name was tremendous because of his impetuous sense of humor—not just because of his skill for emoting on-screen. Since then, however, he’s been funneled into dour Oscar bait, such as the addiction drama Beautiful Boy, and now this, where he barely gets to crack a smile. Even at the beginning of The King, when Hal is presented as the medieval version of a drunken college dropout, the character is largely without sparkle. He is drawn into battle only out of self-importance: His famous Shakespearean duel with Hotspur, invented by the playwright as a barnstorming climax for Henry IV, Part 1, is instead rendered early in The King as Hal’s sanctimonious effort to save his younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) from being forced into battle.
The occasional flash of fun in the film comes only when a character actor drops in on Chalamet and his band of grumps with a more vibrant take on the script. First, Mendelsohn, a longtime associate of Michôd’s, turns the usually mordant Henry IV into a vain paranoiac entirely unworthy of the crown. Then there’s Robert Pattinson, another Michôd favorite, who shows up late in the film to meet Henry on the battlefield as his French counterpart, the Dauphin.
When Pattinson is present, The King comes to life. His gleeful interpretation of the preening Dauphin is somewhere between Pepé Le Pew and Cruella de Vil, a character practically begging the audience to throw rotten fruit at him. The shot of energy he brings to muddy, visceral scenes of battle and strategy provides a glimpse of the movie The King should have been—a juicy, over-the-top blend of fact and legend packed with Hollywood superstars playing to the rafters. But in Michôd’s version, the story is nothing more than a royal slog.