Director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) distills Shakespeare’s historical epic, Henriad, into a 140-minute, star-studded movie. Michôd co-writes the scripts with Joel Edgerton (also stars and produces) concocting elements from at least three plays, namely Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V as a tragicomic retelling of King Henry V’s life. The result is The King, a simplified, character-driven story of leadership built upon a sense of reluctance and ineptness.
The King follows the rise of Hal (Timothée Chalamet)—the wayward prince and heir to King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), the tyrannical king of England—to the throne. Enraged by his father’s deed, the estranged teenage prince has forsaken the royal court to live in a tavern and befriend John Falstaff (Edgerton). For his decision, the prince is underestimated and his royal worthiness is questioned. And yet, when his father dies and the line of succession ends, he has no choice but to assume the throne and be crowned as King Henry V. There, his worth is challenged and his battle to prove he’s a better king than his father has only just begun.
Michôd projects The King as a big-screen epic even when the movie never approached such heights. Shakespeare’s story might be a grand one, but Michôd treats it modestly. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is well-calculated with visually muted color tones, reflecting the movie’s overall tone. The art direction follows the same credo with modest Victorian costumes, including the battle armors, and the set designs which mainly use natural light. The King will go on for two-hours without spectacles, even when it portrays a prolonged siege in France. The carefully measured modesty might make the movie a lesser epic movie, but, at the same time, it paves the way for the actors to excel.
Chalamet leads the ensemble of casts with a surprisingly nonchalant charisma. His portrayal of the soft-spoken prince, whose choices in life are often ambiguous, carries the story’s bare-chested message about the challenge of a leader’s naivety. Hal’s journey to eventually become King Henry V is way more than the haircuts. The wayward prince grows from a teenager who drowns himself in fornications, booze, and other low-life entertainments into a reluctant yet aspiring king in a short period. Chalamet’s stark performance guides us to understand the king’s naivety which is borderline to ineptness and dependency to the counsel of his street pal, Falstaff. He dissolves into the prince nonchalantly, and yet, when he’s got his explosive moments, he really owns it, as seen in scenes like the coronation night and the fiery battle speech.
At the moment where Michôd argues on the heroism of King Henry V, he also leads the audiences to study the character from the juxtaposition with other characters, each with personal trait which either reflects or influences the young king. Mendelsohn is terrific as the cunning Henry IV, an epitome of his previous villainous characters, a figure whom Hal avoids to become. Edgerton’s portrayal of Falstaff, Hal’s mentor, might be a little over-indulging, but his character is pivotal in understanding the titular character’s view of war. If Falstaff is Hal’s right hand, Sean Harris’ William Gascoigne is his left one and, as usual, Harris hides perfectly as an unpredictable advisor. On the opposite corner, Hal is challenged by the Dauphin of France (portrayed with a certain level of campiness by Robert Pattinson), whose character reflects Hal’s naivety and ineptness and throws it back at him as some kind of reminder.
After all, The King is a character study. It’s barely loud and excessive; instead, it goes at a placid pace and lollygags from one point to another without leaving critical marks. If you expect a war epic, you might head to a completely wrong direction (there’s at least one grand battle scene, but if you’re expecting a full-blown war, you might be disappointed). A grand story portrayed modestly but acted superbly is what it is.
The slow-burn King might be exhausting at times with its massive duration and muted conflicts. However, Chalamet’s nonchalant charisma, Pattinson’s sardonic performance, and Edgerton’s presence are captivating through the movie’s blunt moments to its momentous ones.