“The King” (2019) never exactly takes a false step. Pinpointing where the Timothée Chalamet-led adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, which depict the Hundred Years’ War, goes wrong is a futile exercise that only yields scratched heads and shrugged shoulders. A faithful enough adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous historical plays? Check. A dutiful rendering of King Henry V by Chalamet? Check. A succession of moody, foreboding shots of the sun rising and setting over the silent countrysides that the film’s royal cast lead armies to fight over and conquer? Check. Yet, something still feels as though it’s missing from “The King,” which, despite its handsome visuals and thoughtful writing, ultimately never convinces us to care about what’s going on in the film or the characters enacting it.
The Netflix-released film opens to an England beset by civil unrest. An increasingly paranoid and ill King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) has unraveled the decades of relative peace within the ongoing Hundred Years’ War. The sovereign’s actions have alienated many of his nobles, who spur rebellion. His son Hal (Chalamet) has renounced his royal duties in favor of getting routinely and outrageously drunk in London’s seedy taverns with his friend, the over-the-hill alcoholic warrior Falstaff (Joel Edgerton).
Both Shakespeare and history have already told us where this is going: The king will die, and Hal will assume the throne, rise above his youthful prodigality and lead the English closer than they ever have been to conquering the French throne. Edgerton and director David Michôd, who co-wrote “The King,” know this, and their early setup of the situation is tone-perfect. Absent are the long expository titles that hamper so many other historical dramas. The writers instead opt for an evocative, somber retelling, cueing the viewer into the inevitable conflict that follows the palace intrigue. “The King” never forgets the human cost of these rulers’ ravings and selfish scheming, also remaining keenly aware of the fragile male egos behind their power plays.
“The King” seems to mark a career-shifting role for Chalamet, whom some have criticized as unconvincing in the role. These charges ring false; Chalamet gives a thoughtfully-crafted, believable performance as Prince Hal-cum-King Henry. What he does not do is break any new ground in the role. Sean Harris of the “Mission: Impossible” (1996–) franchise and “Macbeth” (2015) likely gives the film’s best performance as William Gascoigne — an enigmatic, brusque adviser to Prince Hal. Robert Pattinson provides a delightfully bizarre turn as the cartoonishly-accented Dauphin of France, who arrives as Hal’s adversary in the famed Battle of Agincourt.
The legendary battle, in which the English used their longbows to mow down a vastly superior French force, is brutally and uncomfortably depicted by Michôd and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. They shoot from close range, letting us hear the mud squelch, armor clang and bodies thud as they let out their final screams.
However, no matter how well they depict the Battle of Agincourt, the filmmakers fail to imbue it with the weight it deserves. The script treats Henry’s hallowed pre-battle speech as an afterthought, and Chalamet admittedly falters in delivering it. If a fatal error could be pinpointed for “The King,” it is precisely that failure to provide the necessary sense of urgency. As in many subpar historical dramas, the filmmakers assume we should care about the film because of what it depicts, so they never fully flesh out its thematic notes, leaving the film feeling empty.
“The King” is by no means a bad film. It treats its source material thoughtfully, giving an introspective look at Hal’s rise from profligate wastrel to legendary conqueror. What it doesn’t do is distinguish itself from the scores of other films that tell more or less the same story in a more interesting manner than “The King” does. While Chalamet may be an intriguing King Henry V, the audience is left asking, “So what?”