The sound of Shakespeare turning in his grave shouldn’t deter you from taking a chance on The King, starring Timothée Chalamet as Prince Hal, the lad dragged reluctantly into playing his own game of thrones. An amalgam of the Bard’s history plays — Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V — reduced to two hours, this mix-and-match melodrama is set in the 15th century but means to speak with the idiomatic, this-just-in urgency of right now. Translation: There’s barely a nod to the poet’s iambic pentameter. Though previous actor-directors Lord Laurence Oliver (all patrician patriotism) and Sir Kenneth Branagh (all street tough and nagging self-doubt) brought Henry V to vibrant, contrasting life on screen, in 1945 and 1989 respectively, the centuries-old material really doesn’t get old. So once more unto the breech, etc.
You can feel that Aussie director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) and co-writer Joel Edgerton are raring to give it a go. Chalamet wisely eases into the role, playing the guppie prince who’s content to drink and letch with his boisterous pal Sir John Falstaff (Edgerton) while his daddy, Henry IV (the reliably terrific Ben Mendelsohn), declares that Hal’s more manly younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) will be the king. But Thomas isn’t long for this world, or this movie. And Hal proves his battlefield worth when he goads this film’s hot-blooded traitor Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) into one-on-one combat that the spindly princeling unpersuasively wins.
Sound the trumpets as Hal moves into position as King Henry V, ignoring his old partying partner-in-crime while he knits his brow like a thoughtful ruler who’d rather rally for peace. It’s a damn shame that there’s a war with France to consider. Cue the re-entry of Falstaff who, contrary to anything Shakespeare ever considered, morphs into a soldier and military strategist of the first rank. It’s his attention to weather — there’s rain in the forecast — that allows the English to dress light and carry crossbows while the French, weighed down by their fancy armor and clanking weaponry, sink in the muck. Edgerton brings a scrappy edge to the role. And Michôd directs the muddy Battle of Agincourt with a verve this solemn movie could have used more of.
The real live-wire in this historical epic is Robert Pattinson, who swans around playing the Dauphin with an outrageous French accent and a teasing wit that lifts The King out of the doldrums whenever he’s on screen. The campy royal has foolishly ignored his father, the French King Charles VI (Thibault de Montalembert), and started a war, well, just because he can. Besides, as the script lectures, titans often clash on the basis of trivial personal peeves. Meanwhile, the victory of the English means Henry V must enter into a truce marriage with Catherine (the lovely Lily-Rose Depp), the firebrand daughter of Charles, who is not going to take any toxic masculinity shit from Henry V. Someone could have made quite a historical drama that tackles those topical themes. This isn’t it.
The King ends in more twists that suggest a miniseries in the offing. But that’s up to Netflix, which will start streaming the film on November 1st after its brief release in a few select theaters. Michôd is too fine a director to stay stuck in a dank rut. And Chalamet and Pattinson have talents that go beyond crass teen-idol packaging. Still, the concept of Shakespeare only minus all that, you know, Shakespeare never recovers from the loss of poetry and purpose. With the Bard’s words, Henry roused his soldiers to action: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” With this mediocrity, it’s more a case of how the war was wan.